A study of risk communication as it relates to altruistic behavior has found that portraying an event as a distant risk, despite highlighting its importance and potential progression, fails to prompt altruistic behavior intention among the U.S. public.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa gained substantial media momentum during the final three months of 2014. In October, a Liberian man visiting family in Texas became the first diagnosed Ebola patient in the U.S. to die from the disease. But though mainstream media hyped it beyond belief, the Obama administration offered minimal assistance to the affected region, at least compared to American responses to other recent crises or disasters, such as the Haitian earthquake in 2010.

But fear sells. With one outbreak in the United States, the wealthy elites in California, Oregon and Washington who believed vaccines cause autism were clamoring for answers as to why the NIH had not funded companies trying to create one despite $300 billion in the 14 years groups had been trying to get money for trials, knowing it had no market in the U.S. so venture capital would not step in. 

Janet Yang, a University at Buffalo communications scholar, says communism would have helped. Using surveys, she argues that a collective, communitarian belief system contributed to altruistic behavior, while those who hold more individualistic values are less likely to be altruistic regardless of how much risk is triggered. This in defiance of beliefs about medicine, since the anti-vaccine movement is overwhelmingly progressive which, in the United States of America, includes collective politics rather than libertarian.

Yang's paper in Risk Analysis manipulated risk perception to determine what factors might influence altruistic behavior, which she measured as support for family and friends if they were to go to West Africa as Ebola responders. In a nationally representative sample involving more than 1,000 adults, Yang assigned two experimental conditions to the subjects: a high-risk article about Ebola modeled after one that appeared in a major newspaper that mentioned two confirmed cases in the U.S., and a low-risk version with the detail about the domestic cases omitted.

The content in both conditions was equally dire, mentioning Ebola cases possibly climbing into the millions.

"Even that subtle change triggered different levels of risk perception," Yang says.

"When we manipulate risk perception, we see that two factors influence altruistic behaviors across the two conditions," she says. "One is issue salience or the perceived importance of the Ebola outbreak. The other is how deeply the message is processed."

In the high-risk condition, the perceived importance of the issue was much more effective in getting people to feel more altruistic, but there is no such correlation in the low-risk condition. Meantime, those who reflected deeply on the message reported much more altruistic behavior intention, something not present in the low-risk condition, says Yang.

Emotions also played a significant role. Yang measured anger, empathy, fear, panic and sadness. Participants reported sadness and anger most often, but the two had significant yet opposite effects.

"Those who reported sadness were much more like to support family and friends responding to the crisis," says Yang. "Sadness might make participants feel more sympathetic toward the victims."

Anger, however, she says, was often antagonistic, directed at international health organizations. Participants also reported significant levels of fear, but that didn't engender altruistic intention since the emotion is often managed by avoiding the issue, according to Yang.

Source: University at Buffalo