Crying Wolf: The Myths on Warning Fatigue

This article was published in the Summer 2011-12 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

This is an edited version of a literature-review paper presented by Bushfire CRC PhD scholar Brenda Mackie, University of Canterbury, School of Social and Political Sciences, New Zealand, to the Bushfire CRC Science Day at the 2011 AFAC-Bushfire CRC Annual Conference in Sydney.

When individuals are exposed to recurring warning messages about an event which then does not eventuate, folklore like the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf says that people become tired of hearing warnings. The story goes on to describe how the villagers turn off and become desensitised to the threatened danger, thereby endangering themselves even more.

Over the years the ‘cry wolf ’ story has morphed into a myth about a mischievous trickster who warns about a danger that does not exist. However, in the original tale, the boy saw the wolf creeping near to the sheep and cried out to the villagers to come and help; the noise the villagers made when they came out to protect the sheep scared the wolf away. Because the villagers did not see the wolf they thought he did not exist, so after several repetitions in which the wolf appeared, the boy warned, the villagers came to help and the wolf ran away, the villagers no longer came out to help, eventually allowing the wolf to capture and make off with the sheep.

Through the telling and retelling of this story, the meaning or moral of it has changed. Whereas it used to mean that even if you do not listen to the boy, sooner or later he will be right, the dominant interpretation of the ‘cry wolf’ moral in the 21st century is that the boy is a liar.

The meaning of warning fatigue has become a ‘taken-for- granted’ phenomenon and is regarded as conventional wisdom. For example, in 2010, the US National Weather Service stated it was actively seeking to reduce the problematic false alarm rate related to weather warnings, because of anticipated community complacency.

In a paper presented at the 2010 AFAC-Bushfire CRC Conference, Principal Research Scientist for the CSIRO Dr Garry Cook concluded that managing the ‘cry wolf ’ effect was one of the three main recommendations that should be addressed in order to reduce residual risk from bushfires in the Australian context.

At the 2011 Conference when Bushfire CRC PhD scholar Claire Johnson (School of Psychological Sciences, La Trobe University) explained how bushfire fighters make decisions in worst-case scenarios and identified warning fatigue as one of seven factors that act as a barrier to effective management.

Warning fatigue is frequently cited as an issue in research on managing public response to disasters, warnings and providing solutions to reducing risk and enabling effective preparedness. This is despite there being no definitive framework with which to measure or describe the phenomenon. Emergency managers and the public engage in debate about (and contribute to) the ‘cry wolf ’ discourse. However they do so without knowing what it is or whether it is real.

Much of the emergency management literature describes optimal warnings as “timely and effective”. However, the “timely” component for these best practice warnings is seldom quantified.

A warning can mean different things depending on the threat. One is that the danger is real, its happening or arrival is certain and the timing can be predicted accurately, for example, cyclone warnings where the equipment to predict these is sophisticated and highly developed. Another possibility is that the danger is real, but the arrival is in question and the timing is anyone’s guess. Health warnings about severe infectious outbreaks fall into this category. Volcanic eruptions are an example of a warning where the danger is real but its arrival is in doubt; geologists can observe abnormalities in the way a volcano is behaving, may even see some eruption evidence, but cannot predict how the volcano will behave.

Yet other warnings are about dangers which may or may not exist (right now), may not arrive at all nor in the manner that is warned about. Bushfires, earthquakes, tsunamis all fall into this category – disastrous events involving these hazards have happened in the past and because of a particular location or season it is possible it may happen again but thus far, nothing has happened. Even so, these dangers are continually warned about and preparation for them is recommended.

Bushfire warnings are most often issued in the absence of an actual fire. This differs from weather warnings that are issued based on sophisticated meteorological data that can be seen and plotted. Of course, high temperatures alone can be weather warnings, but a bushfire needs a combination of multiple factors coinciding over months and years to produce a potentially life-threatening bushfire. These include very high temperatures, very low humidity, strong wind conditions, high fuel load, low ground moisture and specific terrain geography.

What happens after a disaster warning of some magnitude is issued? More importantly, what do people typically do? The literature shows that people most often revert to their own evaluation of their environment, checking the temperature, wind direction or horizon, looking for clues that will either confirm or invalidate the warning. Social networks come into play, where neighbours are called upon to provide more cues not immediately available.

To the observer, it may seem somewhat chaotic, but this ‘social disorganisation’ is common and not necessarily unintentional or irrational, as it often involves trying to get to a safer location, find and reunite families and gather up frightened pets. Of course, some people seem to do nothing, but research has shown that even when people go about their daily routines, they have paid attention to the warning; they have just reacted to it in a different way.

Much of the existing literature talks about the myth of the ‘cry wolf ’ syndrome or effect, implying that it does not exist, however much of the same literature raises questions about the public’s response and puzzlement as to their non-response. J H Sorenson (1993) calls ‘cry wolf ’ a myth, yet when he explains what he means, he says that warnings are not always diminished by ‘cry wolf’ syndrome implying, therefore, that sometimes they are. As Joanne Nigg (1995) points out, a myth does not necessarily mean that a social phenomenon should be regarded as fiction, rather, “as a cultural explanation for events and phenomena that impact people’s lives”. Moreover, these myths are more likely to be associated with natural disasters (extreme weather, earthquakes, bushfires) than manmade technological ones (radioactive leaks, health scares).

The existing literature talks around the issue of warning fatigue. For example, whilst Reser (1996) says there is little evidence to support warning fatigue, in the same paper he states, “repeated natural disaster warnings, as for example in the case of cyclones, can lead to inattention, complacency and desensitisation”. Sandman (2011) maintains that people stop taking warnings seriously if previous warnings do not eventuate and there are too many warnings about risks that do not materialise, resulting in people who shrug off future warnings. In his earlier literature, Sandman does not consider warning fatigue to be a problem, however, stating that its effect is weak and that people “intuitively understand” that a false alarm is a much smaller problem than a disaster they weren’t warned about. He adds that warnings, such as those issued for weather events, are calibrated to be conservative and that the public instinctively know this, in much the same way that smoke alarms in houses are programmed to be oversensitive. However, in an article about flu pandemics three years later, he thinks warning fatigue is a huge problem: because of these ‘false alarms’ the public will react with considerable scepticism should another pandemic be declared. Sandman’s article implies a warning fatigue reality (that it has an effect and can be overcome), without addressing some fundamental issues: those of cause, composition, consequences and solution.

In his book Cry wolf: the psychology of false alarms, S Brezntiz (1984) claims that, “a subsequent episode is automatically altered by past experience”. For example, if someone has experience of a disaster, are they more likely to be aware of its consequences and pay more attention to subsequent disaster warnings? Or will they be more complacent, pay less attention to warnings and prepare less? According to Moore and Moore (1996), “people with prior experience of a natural disaster are likely to experience heightened stress and anxiety when warned about a subsequent event, as a result of remembering and re-experiencing the past events”.

Drabek (2010) observes that experience has a “curious effect on people’s risk perceptions”. In relation to flood risk, if their immediate area has not flooded in their lifetime, they take that as evidence that it will not flood in the future. Furthermore, the likelihood of a 100-year flood is dismissed because people just do not understand basic probability theory – people ignore the fact that random events are equally probable.

The existing literature dismisses the possibility of warning fatigue, yet paradoxically states that people respond to warnings with apathy, become desensitised, complacent, sceptical, react less and prepare less if there have been a lot of warnings. Moreover, no answers to these puzzling reactions are given. The literature is limited, dated and highlights issues that could contribute to the phenomenon of warning fatigue.


Release date

Mon, 09/01/2012