Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Differential reactions in the face of disaster





Why is there a difference in reaction between these two events? A simple Google Trends comparison on the terms “Somalian famine” and “9/11 terrorism” alone in Figure 1 shows the difference in netizens' interest. A report by the UN has found the death toll from the 2011-2012 famine in Somalia to be at approximately 260,000 deaths with half of them being children under the age of 5. Meanwhile, casualties of the 9/11 attacks was 2,996 people killed and more than 6000 injured. One has to wonder why there is a 7-fold coverage in searches for the 9/11 attack when its death toll is 86 times lower than that of the Somalian famine. Before proceeding any further, I would like to stress that this post does not intend to downplay the severity of any one event nor suggest that more attention or resources should be directed to one issue compared to the other. This entry is merely an attempt to understand the difference in attitudes and actions towards terrorism and climate change (the major cause of famine), both of which are extremely important global issues.



Figure 1. Comparison of search terms "Somalian famine" and "9/11 terrorism" between 2011  and 2016

A paper by Sunstein (2007) studying the divergent reactions of Americans towards terrorism and climate change starts by identifying differing beliefs towards these two disasters. People have been found to have unstable and conflicting views towards climate change. While 90% of people are in favor of the United States reducing its greenhouse gas emission levels, a majority of them also oppose measures designed to reduce them such as gasoline tax (78%) and business energy tax (60%). The view on terrorism however has mostly been uniform with 80% of people voting for defense against terrorism as a top priority, even though the survey has been done even before the 9/11 attacks.


Sunstein (2007) posits bounded rationality as the reason behind the differential responses. He pinpoints 6 factors that may affect the cost-benefit analysis of potentially risky events:

1. Availability heuristic Ease of recall of specific events influence a person's perception of the event's frequency. The 9/11 attacks influence people's probability judgement of terrorism, while there is no salient and familiar event for climate change to maintain concern. The role of public officials in frequently bringing up the 9/11 attacks as well as security measures like airport checks also reminded people constantly of the danger of terrorism. Even though there were attempts to link Hurricane Katrina to climate change, it was difficult to process the link between the two and as a result there was no perceived urgency to do something for tackling climate change.

2. Probability neglect People tend to discount probabilities of an event happening and focus on the outcome, especially when there is strong sentiment involved. For terrorism, people are swayed by the extremely negative potential outcomes (e.g. bombings of public places). However this does not hold true for climate change due to low likelihood of recalling distressing outcomes.

3. Outrage People's outrage towards terrorism is presumed to be explained by the Goldstein Effect (the intensifying of concern by simply being able to pinpoint a human source behind the threat). People were able to link the 9/11 to Osama bin Laden, and Sunstein (2007) has proposed that that in itself  is enough to make them respond with more outrage. Since there is no real perpetrator for climate change magnification of outrage did not occur amongst people.

4. Myopia As the name suggests, people have been proposed to discount long-term issues for ones that can be solved more immediately. Climate change being a problem that requires long-term intervention does not seem as severe compared to terrorism, therefore warranting less attention.

5. Optimism People tend to have an unrealistically optimistic outlook on their immunity from certain risks. This is especially so when the risk is in the far future with no major incident to increase cause for concern. People may also believe that the consequences of climate change will be borne by only the future generations, and therefore are unwilling to spend as much on interventions due to reliance on technological advances to reduce such costs. Terrorism however had major incidents such as 9/11 to increase concern (unlike for climate change where at first glance seems to only impact other nations) and is an immediate threat to Americans.

6. Self-interested judgement Although most people believe in fairness, their idea of fairness tends to be biased towards themselves. In the face of climate change, failure of the United States to solve the issue will not result in any punishment. There may also be an unwillingness to sacrifice resources in the name of fairness when most nations are unable to punish the United States for not entering international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to tackle terrorism however could cost internal damage, and therefore there is more willingness to spend resources on fighting terrorism.


While all the above are potential reasons for the differential reactions to terrorism and climate change, they are by no means the only reasons. There may be other factors at play that were not acknowledged such as the influence of ingroup versus outgroup and degree of self-efficacy; in fact, the difference in degree of concern among the two events may not even exist. Perhaps pepple practice differential approaches in expressing concerns about terrorism and climate change, and are not as susceptible to biases nor lacking in altruism. Nevertheless, it is an interesting study on what may be behind public perception of global issues, and would hopefully increase our knowledge on what influences our view towards the world.


Sunstein, C. R. (2007). On the divergent American reactions to terrorism and climate change. Columbia Law Review, 503-557.


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