SIRC bulletin – 18-11-99
Christmas and millennium warnings likely to backfire
The run-up to the Christmas and New Year celebrations has always been something of a scarefest, with every interest-group in the country issuing warnings and instructions – on everything from food poisoning to unsafe sex. Many of these campaigns are well-intentioned, but the cumulative effect is damaging, and this year we have millennium-related scares on top of the usual dose.
'Warning-fatigue', 'Riskfactorphobia' and the 'Forbidden-fruit effect' will be the most common reactions to a predicted overdose of health and safety warnings this Christmas, according to social scientists at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford.
These are the main psychological side effects of the high doses of health and safety scares, warnings and contradictory advice to which the British public is constantly exposed, and SIRC predicts that they will be magnified during the forthcoming 'warning season'.
SIRC's observations indicate three different reactions to this year's 'warning season' campaigns: 'Warning-fatigue', where people become habituated and de-sensitised to health and safety warnings, and simply switch off; 'Riskfactorphobia', the opposite reaction, in which people become anxious and neurotic and over-react; and the 'Forbidden-fruit effect' – deliberate defiance of authoritarian preaching.
"These are the typical responses we have identified," said SIRC Director Kate Fox "and they are all potentially problematic. People affected by warning-fatigue will ignore important safety advice as well as unfounded scares. Riskfactorphobics will suffer unnecessary stress, fear and anxiety, and may attempt to follow contradictory or inappropriate advice. The forbidden-fruit effect will result in precisely the sort of excesses and risk-taking that the warnings are intended to prevent."
To reduce these problems, SIRC is calling for restraint and control, not from millennium revellers but from the organisations involved in millennium-related health and safety campaigns, and from the media*. Officials, activists and journalists should consider the cumulative effect of the forthcoming 'warning season', and ask themselves if their leaflet, ad-campaign, press release or millennium scare story is really necessary.
*Code of Practice: The Social Issues Research Centre is now working with the Royal Institution and a panel of leading scientists, doctors and media representatives to develop an agreed, official Code of Practice on the reporting of science and health issues. This initiative is currently in the early stages of consultation, but a bulletin on the Code of Practice, giving details of the panel members and the objectives, will be issued soon.