Though public concern over H1N1 flu has eased after the initial alarm, scientists believe the flu could resurge in the fall. And though psychological research has shown which communication strategies work and which don't in curbing the spread of infectious disease, so far the government isn't applying best practices to their full potential, says Carnegie Mellon University cognitive psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, who serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee and chairs FDA's Risk Communication Advisory Committee.
That's because policymakers at most federal agencies tend to rely on their gut instincts instead of empirical research, Fischhoff says.
"They exaggerate how well they understand their audiences and how well their messages are understood," he says. "It is striking how much people's welfare depends on officials' willingness to gamble on their intuition."
In 2005, Fischhoff testified before Congress about the ways psychological science could improve officials' messages in response to the threat of avian flu. That same research applies with swine flu, he says, including:
• Tell people the truth, even if it's worrisome.
• Alerts should be organized to contain only the most critical facts to avoid information overload.
• Risk communicators can counter irrational emotional responses by being direct and respectful.
• Recommendations should be reasonable for your audience. People won't trust your message if they can't comply due to lack of mobility or financial means.
• Above all, treat people like adults.
Ultimately, Fischhoff believes the key to successfully communicating risk lies in being as honest and relevant as possible.
"Give people the information they need for their decision-making," he says, "and we can trust them to act responsibly."
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