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Fear Factor: Professor Suzanne Thompson Studies How We Respond to Risk

Psychology Professor Suzanne Thompson studies the many ways we respond to risk.

You’re planning to go on a hike when you hear a news report about scattered cases of West Nile virus in the area. Do you still head out to the woods, but make sure to wear long pants and apply mosquito repellant? Figure the risk is so small that you don’t need to be concerned? Cancel your plans and avoid any chance of exposure? Or, turn off the news and ignore the report?

Psychology Professor Suzanne Thompson has been studying reactions to “delayed consequence threats” like the West Nile virus for the past three years. “We’re constantly bombarded by messages about precautions we need to take now to avoid consequences later on—using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer or protecting ourselves from mosquitoes or taking precautions to prevent identity theft,” she says. “We have to decide if we’re going to pay attention and how much effort we’re going to put into protection.”

Thompson and her research team have conducted several studies, including two national samples of about 1,500 adults. A recent survey of Claremont Colleges students identified four threats and asked participants to rate things like susceptibility and intentions to take protection. What the researchers have discovered is that delayed consequence threats can provoke four responses, which they have identified as control-based, optimistic-denial, heightened-sensitivity and avoidance-denial.
“People who are control-based take warnings seriously and will gather information about what can be done, and if it seems reasonable to do something, they’ll go ahead and do it,” says Thompson, who received National Science Foundation funding for the project in 2006. “Optimistic deniers can be described as the ‘it can’t happen to me’ group. If the circumstances are such they can’t avoid it, they will take action, but it’s not the first approach. Then there are people (heightened sensitivity) who overact and try to protect themselves against threats they may not realistically be at risk for. Health professionals call them the ‘worried well’ because they get anxious about every little symptom and may overuse medical treatment. The avoiders realize they might be at risk but don’t think there’s much they can do about it, so they simply try to ignore the information.”

Each response can be tempered by a number of factors. A family history of cholesterol or heart disease would make warnings about possible health problems harder to ignore. And sometimes, says Thompson, the healthiest choice may be to not respond. “You can imagine a situation where it’s better to be an optimistic denier. We can’t respond to every warning and take them all seriously. If there’s nothing you can do, maybe you are better off thinking it can’t happen to you.”

Thompson’s research into delayed threats has its roots in work she began a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “I started out looking at long-term reactions to 9/11. I was interested in the effects on people who had seen it on television or had read about it but didn’t have a direct connection to the attacks.”

After conducting 500 interviews, she was struck by how varied the responses were. “Some people felt it was a one-time event and that they were invulnerable. On the other end of the spectrum, there were people who still felt quite stressed and anxious and refused to fly. I started thinking about how much of the research on how people respond to threats didn’t take these individual differences into account.”

Thompson, whose other research interests include perceived control and illusions of control, works with a team of undergraduate and graduate students at the Social Research Center on campus. “Most of the undergraduates are from Pomona. We talk about the research process in class and then they get a more personal hands-on experience at the center. The undergrads here are so good that they regularly make major contributions to the group.” The Pomona students are among 11 co-authors of a paper on illusions of control that will be published this fall in Basic and Applied Psychology.

Results from the current research on delayed consequence threats could have a practical application in the way warnings are tailored to the public, says Thompson. “The point isn’t to try to push everyone to do more, but to understand the range of reactions and what’s going to be good and what isn’t. The hopeful part is that given the right circumstances and the right information presented in the right way, people will have a reasonable response.”