Don’t Kill The Messenger

Larry Price
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Wednesday - September 24, 2008
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Why don’t people listen to life-saving advice from government officials?

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was under fire recently in the hard-hit town of Galveston, Texas. People there are unhappy because the response by FEMA after Hurricane Ike was too slow. They wanted the supplies to arrive quickly. Mind you, the complaints come from one of the hardest-hit areas, Bolivar Peninsula, by about 250 residents who refused to leave when ordered to by civil defense officials. As concerns about lack of utilities and the spread of diseases mount, the Texas attorney general’s office is exploring how to legally force them out of the area for their own safety and the safety of rescue workers trying to save their lives.

Anyone who saw the radar images on television knows the storm was huge. The information and pictures were accurate and compelling. Government officials did an admirable job of informing residents of the impending disaster, but some residents refused to leave. How come?

Generally speaking, in communication theory, this falls somewhere in the realm of “killing the messenger” - people feeling autonomous when they are not or people following the crowd, and others who don’t have the common sense or mindset to listen to their inner voice. In any case, it’s safe to say this problem has been going on for a really long time.

One of the oldest behavioral mysteries raised by biblical commentators dates back to 1276 B.C.E., when Moses sent a group of spies with a detailed list of questions about the Land of Israel and its inhabitants. Their answers were supposed to prepare the Jewish people for the subsequent conquest and settlement of Israel. They came back with an answer to all of Moses’s questions. Problem is, they reported what they perceived to be the reality of the situation.

Biblical accounts say Moses didn’t like their observations, and the spies were severely punished because they did not cover up their observations and reported the Land of Israel was inhabited by a mighty group of men and its cities were greatly fortified. They responded to the obstacles by saying, “We cannot do it anymore,” and in the process swayed an entire people to abandon their destiny (Shelach, S. 1972).

Hard to imagine that the idea of “Don’t kill the messenger” is a lesson learned that long ago, and how the public can be swayed by the testimony of a few. According to Robert Cialdini, an internationally respected expert in the fields of persuasion, compliance and negotiation, “If there is a single, most primitive lever for behavior in our species, it’s the power of the crowd.” His research coincides with others in the field of organizational behavior, like Deborah Gruenfeld, who found that, “Most of us believe we’re much more autonomous than we are.”

Some people may not know the story of Moses trying to lead his people to the promised land, but most will remember May 1980. That’s when the rumbling at Mt. St. Helens in Washington started releasing hot gases into the atmosphere. In a similar scenario, news stations and civil defense officials began advising residents to evacuate the area. They showed numerous seismographic pictures registering earthquake after earthquake for all to see. They had the WestStar satellite positioned over North America at the time, showing everyone in real time how the mountain was swelling.

Unlike Moses, officials in Galveston and Mt. St. Helens had pictures in bright color and eyewitness accounts of the impending disaster. After several weeks of warnings and pleas for residents to leave the area, the record shows only the animals left the area - and they didn’t get the message from television.

When Mt. St. Helens exploded, 50 people were killed and more than 1,500 were injured. Much to the chagrin of civil defense officials, their message intended to get residents to leave created the opposite result, a traffic jam of tourists wanting to get a closer look at the impending eruption that ended up being 10 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. Even Hollywood made a movie about the debacle, St. Helens, featuring actor Art Carney. It was about a stubborn resident who lived on the slope of Mt. St. Helens and didn’t believe the news about the impending eruption was true.

The academic question about irrational human behavior during a impending disaster is worthy of research by students. And while it’s true we haven’t experienced a hurricane-force storm like Iniki in more than a decade, it’s just a matter of time before we have one come our way. Hopefully, our residents will listen to advice from FEMA and civil defense officials.

Don’t kill the messenger or follow the example of residents from Bolivar Peninsula.

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