Why Some Respond To Crises with Altruism & Others with Fear

Why do some people respond with empathy in the face of crisis while others close their doors?

When the Ebola epidemic broke out in 2014, many people responded with fear, calling for travelers from West Africa to be quarantined, including aid workers returning from these areas. This same type of response is surfacing once again with the Syrian refugee crisis.

Whether an individual responds to a risky situation with altruism or fear is deeply rooted in each person’s specific cultural values, worldviews, and emotions, according to a new study by risk communication expert Dr. Janet Yang of the University of Buffalo. Reactions to crises are also influenced by how each person deals with factual risk information.

To better understand U.S. responses to the Ebola epidemic, described by the World Health Organization as the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history, Yang conducted an experimental survey involving a nationally representative sample of 1,046 U.S. adults, ages 18 to 91 years old.

Participants were shown a mock-up of New York Times stories, such as “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million in 4 months, C.D.C. estimates,” designed to manipulate their perception of risk. Participants in the high-risk version group were told that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed two diagnosed cases of Ebola in the United States, whereas the low-risk version did not see this fact.

The findings show that factors such as a more individualistic (“fend for yourself”) and hierarchical worldview (“resources should be distributed based on geo-political boundaries”) as well as anger about the Ebola outbreak led to less altruistic behavioral intentions among the respondents.

Participants with a more “solidarist” or “communitarian” view that sees individuals as needing to depend on each other and who felt sad about the epidemic were more likely to express altruistic intentions.

In either case, when communicating about a humanitarian crisis, “it is crucial to aim at reducing the perceived social distance between the victims and those who can offer help,” Yang writes.

Furthermore, when talking with people who believe that the Ebola outbreak might affect the United States if not effectively controlled, Yang suggests, “communication messages might include more facts and statistics because these individuals are more likely to process this information.”

In contrast, people who don’t consider Ebola to be an urgent threat to the U.S. might be more effectively stirred to take altruistic actions by messages “that strike the emotional cord such as sadness and sympathy,” she adds.

A related article by University of Bologna researchers Gabriele Prati and Luca Pietrantoni also identified a number of risk perception and other factors that influenced the responses of 486 Italian adults.

The research was conducted to analyze the relationships among risk perception of Ebola, levels of knowledge about Ebola, and (blatant and subtle) prejudice toward African immigrants. The findings support the idea that “risk perception and worry about Ebola have the potential to elicit ethnocentric and xenophobic attitudes” because Ebola is framed as a disease that affects “others,” such as African immigrants.

A low level of knowledge about Ebola was considered a contributing factor to xenophobic attitudes in response to the Ebola risk. In general, the study also indicates that “people living in a developed country without widespread Ebola transmission are not particularly concerned about Ebola and do not feel at risk of acquiring the virus,” the authors write.

The findings are published online in the journal Risk Analysis.

Source: Society for Risk Analysis