In the very early stages, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts sounded the alarm about H1N1 flu. Not very sensible, is the opinion of Tom Postmes, professor of Social Psychology. All you then achieve is fear and confusion. ‘So many experts have been rolled out since then that it’s becoming more and more difficult to make yourself heard. Repeating the same panic message again and again just puts people’s backs up.’
Postmes supports his opinion with data from Google Analytics. ‘When the WHO announced the outbreak of H1N1 flu to the world in April, there was an enormous peak in search behaviour on the internet. Everyone wanted to know more about it, even though the news at that time was actually only a disaster scenario that had yet to become reality.’
The number of people who searched for flu-related subjects dropped fast. The second peak appeared after 11 June, the day that the flu virus was branded a worldwide pandemic by Margaret Chan of the WHO. Once again there was a peak in interest on the internet, after which the attention again ebbed away. Postmes: ‘It’s dangerous to warn people that something dreadful is on its way when they can see around them that it appears to be much less serious in reality. The result is that the messenger loses credibility.’
Unlike the search behaviour on the internet, the attention paid to the H1N1 flu in the media has remained at about the same high level. Postmes: ‘So many experts have been wheeled out that they have to work really hard to be actually heard. But the more often statements are repeated and the louder the alarm is sounded, the greater the invitation to counter-react. Even people who do not agree with these messages are becoming involved – the debate is polarizing. In the meantime, so many experts have had their say that its hard to know who to believe.’
‘The emphatic warnings by the WHO and the flu experts is feeding opposition’, states Postmes. According to him it’s very important to learn when to keep quiet. ‘Experts can choose to whom they speak. Let’s give them the chance to think about that properly in advance.’ Playing with public opinion, according to him, will have the opposite effect to that intended. ‘Of course the government must act if public opinion gets out of hand. But a collective fear reaction is not something that should be pandered to. There’s a risk that people will lose their confidence in the system if the worst predictions do not come true.’
In a certain sense you can draw a comparison with the consequences of a terrorist attack, thinks Postmes. ‘The damage that such an attack causes is one thing, but the long-term consequences of that same act – a great deal of media attention and a high state of alarm – could mean that the population becomes frightened and loses its cool. The terrorist’s aim is to spread terror. Terror is not healthy for a society and fear of H1N1 flu is equally unhealthy.’
According to Postmes, a better approach would have been for the WHO not to deliberately seek the attention of the media but of policymakers. ‘The messages that are constantly appearing in the media are mainly important for flu fighters and governments. The general public became alarmed but were unable to do anything at the time.’ In the meantime, the public can and should do something, but the alarm-sounders have damaged their own credibility. If they’d informed the public at a much later stage then the level of interest would have been better in step with the moment when action actually had to be taken.’
Tom Postmes (1969) was awarded his PhD by the University of Amsterdam (1997) and worked there as a lecturer. In 2001 he moved to the University of Exeter, where he became a professor in 2004. He has won several international prizes, including research fellowships from the KNAW (1998) and the British ESRC (2003). The majority of his 100 or more publications have appeared in renowned international journals. Postmes became professor of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen in February 2008.
For more information: Tom Postmes, tel. (050) 363 63 86
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