Magazine article Nieman Reports , Vol. 61, No. 1
Dori Reissman, Commander, United States Public Health Service, and Senior Medical Advisor, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
What behavioral and social sciences can tell us about human behavior in a pandemic.
I challenge you, as journalists, to figure out how you can help us to manage fear in the public. I hope you haven't reached this point at which you either want to stick your head in the sand or run around and say the sky is falling. I hear the word "panic" all the time, and most of the time people don't panic. Panic really is about a loss of social order, a loss of internal order. Most of the time people are running around doing what they believe is self-protective. It's not panic, but it might not be social order. So let's be careful with our language and what we evoke because people have an image. When you say "panic," it evokes a feeling of being out of control. Is that what we want to evoke? Or do we want to give the message of how we can reel it in?
When we're thinking of behavioral health and emotional readiness, we don't have a ready-made framework of measures and countermeasures that are understood. That created some of the problems that we had in trying to disseminate this message. When we reach out to the different audiences, we find public trust is a big issue. If you don't have the trust, people aren't going to follow what you say to do.
The idea behind the public trust is if somebody is concerned about something and you don't address those concerns, they really can't hear your message. In government we focus on what is the right message. Can we recreate or procreate messages that are perfect to what we anticipate the issues to be? That's called push technology. We push out that message. But what if that message is out of sync to where the concerns are? What if the message has no receiver? Think about this as a football analogy, and how do you get the receiver to catch the ball if you haven't shown them how to do it?
And then what are the behaviors that you want to increase and what are the other behaviors you want to decrease in order to reduce risk? It's shaping behavior; it's not the government walking in and trying to control people. Instead, it's a sense of how people take personal accountability for their own safety in the context of the community's safety. The other part of the slippery slope is about people not coping well and making poor choices. There's a social and emotional deterioration, and with that comes dysfunction, and with that comes also a cascade of economic problems.
Human resource is the critical infrastructure. Yet we don't deal with what we house in our minds. We don't harden that. We harden our facilities, yet we really need to pay attention to this. I don't know how to obtain that kind of attention, but I know that you, as journalists, are a vector of it. You have a lot of impact, so I want to continue to challenge you.
How do we, in a noncrisis event, get the public used to and ready for critical messaging at critical times? How do we set that expectation and demonstrate it through the minor crisis that might be leading up to a more major crisis? That's where we will get a track record. In terms of trying to get people to reduce risky behavior, we aren't very good about following directions. We don't listen to our mothers. We don't listen to our doctors. So why should we listen to the government?
We've had different sets of experts get together and say what the empirical areas are that have evidence to support that good things will happen if you do them. That's what I'm going to call psychological first aid, and it has certain underpinnings--safety, calming, connection, efficacy and hope. Safety is about removing people from a threat. Calming happens when you want to lower the state of arousal so people can function, concentrate and take concrete steps towards what they need to do to protect themselves. …