October 9, 2014

Expect Fear to be Driven by Dread, Not Data

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 


As of the press time for this post, panic over Ebola is rising in the United States. With the first U.S. diagnosis of a patient last week, and that patient’s passing shortly afterward, it seems that the media — both social and institutional — are dominated by fears of a wider outbreak. As new cases continue to reach the U.S., and deaths abroad near the 4,000 mark, there seems to be a widening disconnect between public reaction and the reassuring messages delivered by medical professionals in the developed world. According to a recent survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. public’s concern over a domestic Hollywood-style epidemic is fueled by many misconceptions about the disease. With the CDC and other experts on auto-repeat saying Ebola doesn’t spread easily like the cold or the flu, and emphasizing that an outbreak is unlikely in the United States, that message isn’t getting traction, in part, because it appears to be refuted by each new case and each new headline.  

This difference between the public and the expert response is part of a wider disconnect between actual and perceived risk. For all of us, the chances of dying due to a car accident, heart disease, or kidney failure are far greater than the chances of succumbing to an infectious disease like Ebola or its kin. Why then does the disease inspire greater fear? Of course, it could be the grisly manner of death, or the rapid spread of the disease in West Africa and beyond. Those are two factors that contribute to what psychologists call the “Dread Factor.” “Ebola’s the kind of disease that zombie movies are made out of,” said Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a researcher at Columbia School of Public Health. That dread is what tips the scale and causes people to fear situations out of proportion to their actual risks. For this reason, looking at that factor of dread (Gigerenzer, 2004) is important for anyone seeking to understand popular risk perceptions and reactions. This post will take a closer look at the factor and provide a list of the situational elements that tend to cause people to dial up from caution or fear all the way up to dread. 

There are many scenarios where litigators would have an interest in promoting or preventing dread. A products plaintiff, for example, would want to get jurors past the point of simply seeing statistical risk associated with a product and all the way to the point of feeling a kind of dread associated with its dangers. A securities defendant, on the other hand, would want to mitigate any feelings of dread that jurors have learned to associate with bankers, investors, and traders. Naturally, dread is a complex feeling and lawyers can’t simply start or stop it based on a turn of a phrase. However, there are a number of well-studied factors that tend to be associated with dread. Emphasizing those factors can dial it up, and downplaying those factors can dial it down. 

High Consequences

This is the obvious one: When the result is viewed as really bad, then it is more likely to inspire dread. Note, however, that high consequences does not necessarily mean high numbers. In fact, the classic threats that inspire dread, like terrorism, tend to be high-impact combined with relatively low likelihood. As some research indicates (Galesic & Garcia-Retamero, 2012), even very low numbers can drive perceptions of catastrophe.

Absence of Control

Factors seen as uncontrollable by those on the receiving end are more likely to inspire dread. In the case of Ebola, the lack of a reliable treatment contributes to the perceived crisis. In a litigation context, the risk becomes an object of dread to the extent that victims are unable to shield themselves from the harm.

Involuntary Exposure

Part of that absence of control relates to involuntary exposure: The most sympathetic victims did not in any way choose to place themselves at risk. That explains the particular horror over the new Ebola cases in the West that have extended beyond medical workers. When a problem begins to touch those who have not placed themselves at risk, then it escalates to a more personal level of perceived threat.

Social Disruption

Public health expert Philip Alcabes wrote about epidemics in the book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu. Based on his analysis, one constant in defining ancient and modern epidemics is some level of social disruption. For example, heart disease carries a risk that is far greater than Ebola, but it isn’t considered an epidemic. In the Hollywood outbreak script, one factor is the breakdown of social order, and that is perhaps the most frightening aspect.

A Story

Individual stories help to make events more meaningful, as we’ve written before, but there is also the broader story of the harm itself. Epidemic stories have a common narrative trajectory, starting small, building, breaking out, and then succumbing to some kind of control. In that frame, the dreadful factor itself is the main actor.

A Scapegoat

Phillip Alcabas also writes that conditions tend to be scarier when they’re seen as emanating from a clear source. The presence of identifiable blame tends to provide a focus for the fear. In Medieval Europe, the bubonic plague was blamed on Jews, and today, the focus for Ebola is on West Africans. As Alcabas notes, “In sum, if there’s no one to blame, then we don’t use the term epidemic.”   

Few if any of the ills that become the subject of litigation will rise to the level of perceived threat that accompanies an epidemic like Ebola. At the same time, the common factors that tend to escalate the subjective experience of threat and fear don’t tend to change. To the extent that a plaintiff can emphasize a version of each of these factors in the context of their case, they are tapping into a powerful psychological motivator. To the extent that defendants lead jurors away from these elements, they are helping to keep jurors in a rational rather than emotional frame. 


Other Posts on Fear Appeals:


Alcabes, P. (2009). Dread: how fear and fantasy have fueled epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu. PublicAffairs.

Galesic, M. & Garcia-Retamero, R. (2012). The Risks We Dread: A Social Circle Account. PLOS One.

Gigerenzer, G. (2004). Dread Risk, September 11, and Fatal Traffic Accidents. Psychological Science, April.

Image Credit: Robert van der Steeg, Flickr Creative Commons

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