In Brief

When a country's population combines high aversion to risk with low confidence in government information, it's apt to respond more strongly, and more negatively, to a health scare, concluded the researchers. Their finding comes from interviews with 521 German and Dutch consumers and 228 American consumers following the 2000-01 outbreak of mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).

Even though most respondents realized they could die from the disease, Germans panicked about it considerably more than the Dutch or Americans. Almost 60 percent of Germans said they had significantly cut back their beef consumption during the scare, whereas less than a quarter of Dutch interviewees reported eating less beef. Americans barely cut back at all, but then again, the disease did not hit American livestock.

The results, which appear in the March issue of the International Journal of Research in Marketing (Vol. 19, No. 1), also indicate that, although Americans and Germans are generally the most risk-averse, American and Dutch people trust government information more than Germans do. More than 80 percent of Americans and three-quarters of Dutch respondents heeded government information about mad cow disease, but only 50 percent of Germans did.

"Having less faith in information provided by government ended up influencing people's attitudes toward consuming beef," explains Wansink.

As a result, Germany ordered mass slaughtering of cows to assuage public fear. The country may not have resorted to such drastic actions had Germans been more sure of their safety, says Wansink. But there's one thing all governments can be sure of, he says: The more prompt, honest and accurate they are in their communications, the more they will win public confidence.

How, in his view, did the U.S. government fare in its recent communications about the anthrax and terrorist scares? Quite well, he says. Though some information had to be corrected, government communicators clearly conveyed what they knew, when they knew it. "And to the public," says Wansink, "what's most important is that the government is genuine and upfront."