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Elliot Aronson Fear, Denial, and Sensible Action in the Face of Disasters I MUST BEGIN THIS ESSAY WITH A CONFESSION: I AM NOT AN EXPERT on disasters. I have not studied disasters directly, nor do I know m uch about the m ajor differences am ong various kinds of disasters. W hat I do know som ething about is how the hum an m ind works; how people think, feel, and behave in a wide variety of complex situations (Aronson, 1999, 2008; Tavris and Aronson, 2007). To the extent th at this knowledge may apply to disasters, I suspect that it will be useful in helping people respond rationally to avoid falling victim to a disas­ ter (for example, by im m unizing themselves from infection during a pandemic), or to prepare themselves for an inevitable disaster (like a hurricane), or to respond sensibly to a disaster (like an act of terrorism) once it occurs. After spending the past 50 years doing experim ents on hum an behavior, I am convinced th at people do not often behave in a rational manner. That is, our behavior frequently fails to conform to that of the “rational actor” in economic forecasts—m uch to the consternation of m ost economists and policymakers (see Kahneman and Tversky, 1984, 1996). Human behavior is not always rational, but it is fathomable. And, to the extent that we can understand the variables that produce ratio­ nal and irrational behavior, we can find ways to help people make m ore sensible decisions. In the arena of “how people respond to disasters,” such an understanding will save lives. social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 855 Specifically, the question I w ant to raise is this: How can we use our knowledge of how the m ind works to help people act in ways that can prevent the disaster, prepare for it or, at the veiy least, help them respond to a disaster in ways that will reduce its impact? To answer this question, I begin w ith the em otion of fear. How do people respond w hen they are frightened? If there is a disaster in the offing (say, a terrorist attack, a hurricane, or a pandemic) and a policym aker w ants people to follow a particular course of action to save their lives, should he or she scare them ? If so, would it be m ore effective to induce a great deal of fear? Or m ight a great deal of fear be overwhelming? W ould inducing a low or m oderate am ount of fear be m ore effective? These are vital questions th at any official at the national, state, and local level interested in curtailing the damage inflicted by disasters should know about. Fortunately, data are avail­ able on this issue. Let me begin w ith two stories. In 1741, the distinguished American theologian Jonathan Edwards delivered a series of lectures throughout New England in w hich he vividly described the torm ents of hell that awaited all sinners who were unredeemed. He told his audiences that, in order to escape the ravages of hell, they m ust give over their lives to Jesus. Eyewitness accounts indicate that the sermons left the congrega­ tions swooning and “breathing of distress and weeping.” The records show that, wherever Edwards preached, thousands gave over their lives to Christ as part of the Great Awakening of eighteenth-centuiy America. Some of today’s skeptics m ight not regard hellfire as a realistic disaster, but for a believer in eighteenth-centuiy New England, the threat of hell was very real, and w hat could be a greater catastrophe than to spend all of eternity having your flesh m elted by its unbearable fires? Jonathan Edwards dem onstrated that scaring the hell out of people is an effective way to induce people to act in w hat they perceive as being in their own best interests. Some 245 years later, two social psychologists inform ed UCLA college freshmen, during their orientation week, that m ost experts were 856 social research convinced that there was a high probability of an earthquake in the Los Angeles area during...


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