New York | People’s altruistic intentions during a global epidemic depends on their worldviews and emotions, and are also influenced by how they deal with factual risk information related to the outbreak, a new study has found. When the Ebola epidemic broke out in 2014, many people in US responded with fear and loathing, calling for travellers from West Africa to be quarantined, including health workers returning from Ebola-affected areas. Responses to the Syrian refugee crisis bear some of the same hallmarks as the response to the Ebola epidemic, researchers said.
These and many other crises underscore the importance of understanding how people respond to risks. A new study by Janet Yang of the University of Buffalo in US throws important light on how altruistic behavioural intentions related to the Ebola outbreak were deeply rooted in cultural values and worldviews and emotions, yet also were influenced by the ways in which people dealt with factual risk information related to the outbreak.
To understand US responses to the epidemic, Yang conducted a survey involving a nationally representative sample of 1,046 US adults, from 18 to 91 years old. Participants were exposed to a mock-up of news stories, titled Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million in 4 months, CDC estimates, designed to manipulate their perception of risk.
The high-risk version highlighted the fact that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed two diagnosed cases of Ebola in the US, whereas the low-risk version omitted this fact. The studies showed 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 behavioural intentions among study participants.
Those 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 said.
In addition, when communicating with audiences who believe that the Ebola outbreak might affect the US 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, audiences who do not perceive Ebola as an urgent risk potentially threatening the US might be more effectively stirred to take altruistic actions by messages that strike the emotional cord such as sadness and sympathy, she said.
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