Ebola Risk Communication and Management Raises Challenges, SRA Experts Affirm

Risk specialists Paul Slovic, Peter Sandman, and Igor Linkov commented on managing the risk and the uncertainty surrounding what is known – and not known – in the current situation.

Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon, and a University of Oregon psychology professor, is widely known for his research on public perception of risk. He believes that the same factors he has found to raise concerns about other hazards, such as the unfamiliar nature of the disease combined with its potentially fatal outcome, are at work in the case of Ebola. He also thinks that officials should be open about the possibility that a 21-day quarantine period for those exposed to Ebola is not an absolute guarantee of protection.

Slovic tested the waters for this recommendation in his recent survey research, an online study of 1400 people that showed factors such as trust, perceived personal risk, and perceived global risk were unaffected by information suggesting that 21 days is not necessarily the upper limit.

“The survey ran at a time when there were no active cases in the United States and the mood was calm,” Slovic cautioned in a recent email. Even so, the survey results were surprising. Slovic’s views on public reactions to Ebola are summarized in an October 27 Washington Post opinion column available here, in which he reminds us that trust is hard to earn but easy to lose.

Peter Sandman, the prominent risk communication expert and former Rutgers professor who gave us the familiar formula “risk = hazard + outrage,” offered a parallel message when asked by email about lessons learned in the current Ebola situation. “If I had to pick one lesson to stress,” he said, “it would be to avoid absolutism: Never say never!” If the disease turns out not to behave exactly as predicted, mistrust and overreaction would be the likely result.

“By their absolutism, officials and experts are setting up the public to be shocked” if there are exceptions, Sandman explained. His advice for spokespeople? “Don’t over-reassure, acknowledge uncertainty, and be respectful of people’s early overreactions.” Read much more about Sandman’s views here.

Igor Linkov, Risk and Decision Science Team Lead with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, suggested a different tack: more emphasis on resilience.

“Resilience management accepts that not all events can be predicted or prevented and actively develops the capacity to recover and adapt in the future,” Linkov explained by email. Where risk assessment focuses on vulnerability, threat levels, and consequences, resilience management focuses on improving the capability to recover – and “accepts that not all events can be predicted or prevented,” he added.

Linkov’s recent article (with colleagues) about the fifteenth-century response of the city of Venice to the Black Plague was featured on an NPR blog here. The article uses the historical experience of Venice to illustrate the concept of resilience as it might apply to contemporary challenges like Ebola.

The program for the December 2014 annual SRA meeting includes a poster presentation by Mary McDaniel and Catherine Boomus, physicians with Intrinsik Environmental Sciences (US) Inc. They plan to critique the communication surrounding the Ebola epidemic, discuss the impact of over-reassurance and the reasons for public reactions, and offer common-sense suggestions for improvement.

Susanna Priest, SRA News Editor