Communication Challenges in Managing Social and Economic Impacts of Emerging and Infectious Diseases

President, Decision Research, Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon


Risk is inherently hard to understand and communicate. Analytic feeling and “gut reaction” coexist in the mind. The latter gives rise to “risk as feeling,” characterized by fast, intuitive reactions, dominated by affect and emotion, and creates a fertile climate for powerful influences from culture, ideology, framing, and many cognitive and emotional biases. Risk feelings include stigmatization that may lead to avoidance of people, places, and products perceived to be abnormally risky. Effective communication is essential to reduce the direct health effects from emerging and persistent infectious diseases (EPID) and the indirect social and economic costs due to stigma, which could be enormous. Communicators need to understand the psychology of risk and conduct research to determine whether their messages are being understood and acted upon appropriately. Communication strategies must be tailored to fit the characteristics of the exposed population and the nature of the threat. Efforts to improve communication are essential and likely to be highly cost effective.