Session Six — “Terror” — chaired by Stuart Schechter.
Bill Burns, Decision Research (suggested reading: The Diffusion of Fear: Modeling Community Response to a Terrorist Strike), studies social reaction to risk. He discussed his theoretical model of how people react to fear events, and data from the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings in the UK, and the 2008 financial collapse. Basically, we can’t remain fearful. No matter what happens, fear spikes immediately after and recovers 45 or so days afterwards. He believes that the greatest mistake we made after 9/11 was labeling the event as terrorism instead of an international crime.
Chris Cocking, London Metropolitan University (suggested reading: Effects of social identity on responses to emergency mass evacuation), looks at the group behavior of people responding to emergencies. Traditionally, most emergency planning is based on the panic model: people in crowds are prone to irrational behavior and panic. There’s also a social attachment model that predicts that social norms don’t break down in groups. He prefers a self-categorization approach: disasters create a common identity, which results in orderly and altruistic behavior among strangers. The greater the threat, the greater the common identity, and spontaneous resilience can occur. He displayed a photograph of “panic” in New York on 9/11 and showed how it wasn’t panic at all. Panic seems to be more a myth than a reality. This has policy implications during an event: provide people with information, and people are more likely to underreact than overreact, if there is overreaction, it’s because people are acting as individuals rather than groups, so those in authority should encourage a sense of collective identity. “Crowds can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
Richard John, University of Southern California (suggested reading: Decision Analysis by Proxy for the Rational Terrorist), talked about the process of social amplification of risk (with respect to terrorism). Events result in relatively small losses; it’s the changes in behavior following an event that result in much greater losses. There’s a dynamic of risk perception, and it’s very contextual. He uses vignettes to study how risk perception changes over time, and discussed some of the studies he’s conducting and ideas for future studies.
Mark Stewart, University of Newcastle, Australia (suggested reading: A risk and cost-benefit assessment of United States aviation security measures; Risk and Cost-Benefit Assessment of Counter-Terrorism Protective Measures to Infrastructure), examines infrastructure security and whether the costs exceed the benefits. He talked about cost/benefit trade-off, and how to apply probabilistic terrorism risk assessment; then, he tried to apply this model to the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service. His result: they’re not worth it. You can quibble with his data, but the real value is a transparent process. During the discussion, I said that it is important to realize that risks can’t be taken in isolation, that anyone making a security trade-off is balancing several risks: terrorism risks, political risks, the personal risks to his career, etc.
John Adams, University College London (suggested reading: Deus e Brasileiro?; Can Science Beat Terrorism?; Bicycle bombs: a further inquiry), applies his risk thermostat model to terrorism. He presented a series of amusing photographs of overreactions to risk, most of them not really about risk aversion but more about liability aversion. He talked about bureaucratic paranoia, as well as bureaucratic incitements to paranoia, and how this is beginning to backfire. People treat risks differently, depending on whether they are voluntary, impersonal, or imposed, and whether people have total control, diminished control, or no control.
Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen (suggested reading: The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t — and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger), talked about how the media covers risks, threats, attacks, etc. He talked about the various ways the media screws up, all of which were familiar to everyone. His thesis is not that the media gets things wrong in order to increase readership/viewership and therefore profits, but that the media gets things wrong because reporters are human. Bad news bias is not a result of the media hyping bad news, but the natural human tendency to remember the bad more than the good. The evening news is centered around stories because people — including reporters — respond to stories, and stories with novelty, emotion, and drama are better stories.
Some of the discussion was about the nature of panic: whether and where it exists, and what it looks like. Someone from the audience questioned whether panic was related to proximity to the event; someone else pointed out that people very close to the 7/7 bombings took pictures and made phone calls — and that there was no evidence of panic. Also, on 9/11 pretty much everyone below where the airplanes struck the World Trade Center got out safely; and everyone above couldn’t get out, and died. Angela Sasse pointed out that the previous terrorist attack against the World Trade Center, and the changes made in evacuation procedures afterwards, contributed to the lack of panic on 9/11. Bill Burns said that the purest form of panic is a drowning person. Jean Camp asked whether the recent attacks against women’s health providers should be classified as terrorism, or whether we are better off framing it as crime. There was also talk about sky marshals and their effectiveness. I said that it isn’t sky marshals that are a deterrent, but the idea of sky marshals. Terence Taylor said that increasing uncertainty on the part of the terrorists is, in itself, a security measure. There was also a discussion about how risk-averse terrorists are; they seem to want to believe they have an 80% or 90% change of success before they will launch an attack.
Next, lunch — and two final sessions this afternoon.
Adam Shostack’s liveblogging is here. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments. Matt Blaze’s audio is here.
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 12:01 PM •