New Worlds: Information on dangers creates indifference

Intuitively, one would think that the more plentiful the information about risks, the more careful we are.

Lost in translation? Only the Hebrew wording on this sign contains a warning to keep away. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Lost in translation? Only the Hebrew wording on this sign contains a warning to keep away.
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Intuitively, one would think that the more plentiful the information about risks, the more careful we are. If we have to choose between a city where life is dangerous and a city where life is safe, we will choose the latter.
But this notion is refuted in a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Conducted by Prof. Eldad Yechiam from the industrial engineering and management faculty at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, it found that the more information about the danger there is, the more the “appetite for risk” actually prevails. In other words, intense coverage of unusual adverse events may actually bring about a calming effect.
The study focused on severe climatic events such as fires, floods and tsunamis. The research question was whether daily information on such events reinforces – or actually weakens – the urge to get away from those places. The test was conducted using a simulation of a “microworld” – a reality in which the participants had to decide which village (out of three) they wanted to live in. Two of the villages were characterized by a better quality of life than the third, but also by a higher probability of earthquakes. The simulation was held in several rounds; in each of these rounds participants were given the option to change their decision. Each participant was exposed to different levels of daily information about the earthquakes in the region – from minimal information about what was happening in his or her home alone, to a “full media report” of what was happening in all the homes.
The findings were surprising: the more extensive the information, the greater the participant’s tendency to choose the villages that are more prone to earthquakes.
According to Yechiam, the explanation is simple. “Whenever there’s a rare natural event such as an earthquake, detailed information only emphasizes its rarity, and the person who has to make a decision will choose the dangerous village because it is a better place in normal times. The good daily routine is perceived as an advantage that outweighs the rare risk, and therefore people will prefer a good and slightly dangerous life to a safe but not-so-good life. They know that if they choose the safe and bad life they will feel like a sucker, because most of the time the detailed information will emphasize the disadvantages of their choice.
This same kind of pattern was found following one of the most famous earthquakes in the US, the Loma-Parieta earthquake, which hit northern California in 1989. Widely covered by the media, it resulted in homeowners reducing the risk estimate of their home insurance. This might have been because of homeowners’ notion that “earthquakes do not strike in pairs” (which is geographically wrong) or because of media attention. The new study suggests that media attention alone increases appetite for risk in situations of rare hazards.
Yechiam suggests that a similar dynamic may appear with reports about terrorist attacks. “When I am exposed to full and detailed information from the media and receive information about a terrorist attack in any given city, I conclude that the situation is calm everywhere else. Moreover, within a short time the event in that city will also become a rare event and I will no longer avoid visiting there.”
A report on a fundamentally new and unprecedented molecular closed-cage nanostructure, produced by immensely concentrated sunlight was published recently by a team combining researchers in Beersheba, Rehovot and Russia. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Profs. Jeffrey Gordon and Daniel Feuermann, Prof. Reshef Tenne’s group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Dr. Andrey Enyashin at the Ural Federal University explained their work in a recent issue of one of the foremost journals in nanotechnology, ACS Nano.
A nanostructure is a structure that has dimensions of only a few nanometers. Closed-cage molecular structures of nanometer dimensions have been realized for years – starting with pure carbon, followed by the discovery of a panorama of inorganic compounds by Tenne. The theoretical basis for why these remarkable molecular enclosures form followed. Invariably, they were found to exhibit startling and unanticipated electronic, mechanical and chemical properties.
But closed-cage nanostructures assembled from the alternate layering of different chemical compounds that, individually, would not succeed, but together, as a “misfit” superstructure, do indeed succeed, had neither been proposed nor synthesized previously. In this case, the two compounds were lead sulfide and tin sulfide.
The experimental success story followed, thanks to an advanced solar furnace designed and built by Gordon and Feuermann at their lab at BGU’s Sde Boker campus’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. Highly concentrated solar radiation proved to be the key element in creating a unique reactor conducive to the synthesis of these singular misfit nanostructures. The reactor conditions include continuous temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees Celsius and relatively large irradiated areas, creating an extensive ultra-hot annealing environment (using heat treatment to change a material’s and strong gradients in the reaction region).
Their misfit nanostructures could exhibit interesting qualities for absorption of visible light, which could spawn applications in photocatalysis and photodetection.
Their groundbreaking findings augur well for future studies in which a rich spectrum of such misfit layered nanostructures could be identified and synthesized; these are now being planned in by Tenne, Gordon and Feuermann.