Monday, May 25, 2015

How alarm amplifies through social networks.

We've all probably played the parlor game with 10 or more people sitting in a circle, with one whispering a word into the ear of the person to their right, continuing to pass the word by whispering to the right until it comes back to the originator, frequently altered from its original form. Moussaïd et al. do a version of this routine in an experiment on how risk perception of hazardous events such as contagious outbreaks, terrorist attacks, and climate change spread through social networks. They find that although the content of a message is gradually lost over repeated social transmissions, subjective perceptions of risk propagate and amplify due to social influence.
Understanding how people form and revise their perception of risk is central to designing efficient risk communication methods, eliciting risk awareness, and avoiding unnecessary anxiety among the public. However, public responses to hazardous events such as climate change, contagious outbreaks, and terrorist threats are complex and difficult-to-anticipate phenomena. Although many psychological factors influencing risk perception have been identified in the past, it remains unclear how perceptions of risk change when propagated from one person to another and what impact the repeated social transmission of perceived risk has at the population scale. Here, we study the social dynamics of risk perception by analyzing how messages detailing the benefits and harms of a controversial antibacterial agent undergo change when passed from one person to the next in 10-subject experimental diffusion chains. Our analyses show that when messages are propagated through the diffusion chains, they tend to become shorter, gradually inaccurate, and increasingly dissimilar between chains. In contrast, the perception of risk is propagated with higher fidelity due to participants manipulating messages to fit their preconceptions, thereby influencing the judgments of subsequent participants. Computer simulations implementing this simple influence mechanism show that small judgment biases tend to become more extreme, even when the injected message contradicts preconceived risk judgments. Our results provide quantitative insights into the social amplification of risk perception, and can help policy makers better anticipate and manage the public response to emerging threats.

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