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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Temple: Keeping It Simple? That’s Smart.

Would you trust disaster response authorities if they told you to stay inside (and not to go out looking for your family)?  What is a dirty bomb, anyway?

Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences Dr. Sarah Bauerle Bass says that too few people know how to properly respond to disasters—both natural (like Hurricane Katrina) and manmade (such as a dirty bomb, an explosive device designed to spread radioactive material).  And in a paper recently published in Health Security, she says that’s especially true of adults with low literacy levels.  That means they could be at even more risk if disaster strikes.

Dr. Bass and her research team surveyed low-literacy adults about their perceptions of dirty bombs—how much they knew, how they would respond, what they would worry most about. Dr. Bass’ team found that many people didn’t know that they should “shelter in place”, and some said they wouldn’t trust authorities to give them the right information about what to do after a dirty bomb hit their city.

Dr. Bass says this illustrates a larger issue:  Much of the disaster preparedness information available today is too complicated to be understood by people with basic or below-basic literacy.  And it doesn’t address the lack of confidence in public health authorities that some people in minority communities feel. Both of those factors can be barriers to following directions after a disaster.

The researchers used analytic methods borrowed from marketing research (which Bass has also used in other studies) to segment survey participants by their beliefs, then create message strategies that addressed key barriers to sheltering in place. Using these messages, the researchers developed disaster preparedness information that low-literacy adults would find easier to read and understand.  Some versions also included messages reassuring people that disaster response instructions can be trusted.

The team then tested these literacy-appropriate materials, finding that low-literacy adults in the study understood them more easily, and might be more likely to follow directions (read about their findings here). The results send a powerful message that when it comes to emergency planning, good information is key—and it should be accessible to everyone.

You can read more about Dr. Sarah Bauerle Bass here, or learn more about her Risk Communication Laboratory at the College of Public Health.  Article also available at