Special comment on warning: In the past few days the US media has bombarded viewers and listeners with the latest State Department warning about an al Qaida threat in public places in European cities. The warning instructs travelers to not change their travel plans, but to be alert in public places, transportation hubs and gathering places.
It goes without saying that governments must disseminate such warnings, though reporting from Germany and France disputes the threat as stated in the US warning. However, there are some well established precepts of warning that the recent US warning ignores, at least as reported by radio and television.
The main purpose of any warning message, obviously, is to help keep people, companies, countries safe. Warnings do this by raising vigilance in order to generate appropriate reflexive responses. An appropriate reflexive response is a human behavior that is reasonable under the circumstances, that is, appropriate to the information about the threat. (See the writings of Irving Janis, Alexander George and many others for detailed explanations.)
Vigilance is fragile because it is a fear response that is difficult to sustain if the threat fails to materialize as damage.
The appropriateness of a vigilance response is related to the amount of fear-generating information in the warning plus the amount of reassurance it contains. For example, long experience has shown that blanket reassurance always negates vigilance. In practice, reassurance and vigilance cannot co-exist. Reassurance always trumps vigilance.
In attempting to raise vigilance, the latest warning messages advised travelers of potentially mortal danger, but then instructed them to make no changes in plans, which is a blanket reassurance message. The advice to be alert, but make no travel changes is almost certain to erode vigilance, except in the most skittish. It also makes little sense.
Another lesson form the history of warning concerns the content: how much information must a warning contain. Researchers in the 1960s compiled lessons for use by civil defense authorities in responding to natural disaster, such as hurricanes, as well as civil threats, including air raids.
They found that too much history and explanation negates vigilance. Familiarity breeds reassurance and thus, disregard of the warning. On the other hand, too little information breeds disregard because the audience does not know what to do or to avoid.
A problem with the weekend warnings as publicized is they contain no guidance about what to do or avoid. Everyone does something to protect themselves in the face of potentially mortal danger. The warning message advised travelers to not do those things, just be alert.
The US warning also includes a presumption that precautions are universal. Consider, during a recent trip to Europe, travelers could find that Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris had no visible security, but at Schipol airport in Amsterdam, commandos patrolled with slung sub-machineguns.
What constitutes reasonable precautions differs by country and by culture. Plus, what are the reasonable precautions travelers can take against Mumbai-style machine gun and grenade attacks at hotels and synagogues?
Good warnings – meaning, useful in keeping people safe — require careful crafting and drafting. The weekend warnings seem to be aimed at exonerating the government and placing on travelers the responsibility for being safe from terrorist attacks. Thus, if some US citizens were to die, the government could and would claim it had warned them to be careful, for whatever good that does.