Public Defence Milou Kievik


Milou Kievik is a PhD Student in the research group Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety, her Supervisor is Professor Ellen Giebels from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social sciences (BMS). Her promotion takes place on 16 November at 16:45 hrs. in the Prof. dr. G. Berkhoff-zaal, De Waaier building.

The aim of this thesis is to gain an in-depth understanding of self-protective behavior of citizens regarding real-life safety risks. With the increase of safety risks in our modern day society, the necessity of preparing citizens for possible risks and crises in their environment becomes more evident (Rickard et al., 2014). Insight in the conditions under which citizens are inclined to take self-protective measures is therefore needed. Since risk communication is a powerful tool used to increase self-protectiveness of citizens, this thesis also focuses on studying the way in which risk communication can be used as a means to enhance the self-protective behavior of at-risk populations. The main research question is: Which variables predict the self-protectiveness of citizens with regard to real-life safety risks and under which conditions is risk communication most effective in enhancing self-protective behavior?

This thesis goes beyond previous studies in five ways. One, I test the basic assumptions of the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) (Witte, 1992) – a prominent model in risk communication research - in a controlled laboratory setting as well as in field studies with regard to safety risks. Two, I add variables to the basic assumptions of the EPPM, namely involvement, social norm and personal responsibility. Three, I study the effect of different risk communication efforts - differing in the number of risk message repetitions and the instructional method (active vs. passive) used - on self-protectiveness in both the short- and long-term. Four, I study actual behavior instead of intentions only. Five, I focus on various risk topics – varying in level of familiarity, novelty and dreadfulness, and variations in man-made and natural hazards – and populations, namely primary school children (age: 9 – 13) and adults. These variations allow us to study human behavior regarding safety risks in general and to generalize our results to a broad population.

Together, the findings discussed address both the predictors of actual self-protectiveness as well as the way in which risk communication can most optimally stimulate self-protective behavior – the so called “delivery mode”. One may conclude that insight in both the predictors of self-protective behavior in real-life safety settings and the delivery mode that is most effective in increasing self-protectiveness contributes to a better understanding of self-protective behavior of citizens.

In chapter 2, an empirical study on the effect of risk perception and efficacy beliefs on self-protectiveness regarding flood risks is reported. Based on the Extended Parallel Process Model (Witte, 1992), my co-authors and I examine what the effect of risk messages is – differing in level of risk perception and perceived efficacy –on the intention of citizens prone to the risks of flooding to take risk mitigating options. Moreover, we examine their information seeking behavior concerning flood risks. In the study reported in chapter 2 (n = 726) a quasi-experimental field study is conducted among adults prone to flood risks, by manipulating the levels of perceived risk and efficacy beliefs in multiple risk messages. Results show that higher levels of induced risk perception and efficacy beliefs result in significantly higher levels of both information seeking behavior and the intention to engage in self-protective behavior. The efficacy beliefs proved to be key predictors of self-protectiveness. Also, high levels of risk perception prove to be a vital element in increasing self-protectiveness. Only under the condition that respondents perceive a risk as threatening and feel that risk mitigating options are feasible and useful in mitigating the threat, they will engage in risk mitigating behaviors.

In chapter 3, two empirical studies are reported on the effect of risk information seeking on risk behavior regarding fire safety and terrorism. Although a growing body of risk communication research focuses on how people process risk information, one question often overlooked is how the seeking of information contributes to behavioral adaptation toward the risk issue (Ter Huurne, 2008). In the first empirical study (n = 92), several of the basic assumptions of the Framework for Risk Information Seeking (Ter Huurne, 2008) are tested in a laboratory setting. This study focuses on the effect of personal involvement and risk perception on the intention for risk information seeking. In the second empirical study (n = 168), the effect of risk perception, involvement and efficacy on self-protectiveness is tested. Also, the relationship between risk information seeking and the intention to take other preventive or risk-mitigating behaviors is studied. Results show that high levels of involvement proves to be an additional important predictor of both risk information seeking as well as the intention to engage in other risk related behaviors. Participants that felt that they are personally involved with a certain risk, showed higher levels of self-protective behavior. Also, respondents engaging in the gathering of relevant risk information are more intended to take preventive measures than low risk information seekers. This stresses the need to actively motivate citizens to seek for risk information as an addition to merely encouraging them to engage in risk mitigating behavior.

In chapter 4 two empirical studies are reported focusing on the way in which risk communication efforts are most effective in enhancing self-protectiveness of individuals concerning external safety risks. I propose that the psychological elements underlying people’s judgment whether to take self-protective behaviors can be influenced by the way in which risk communication is provided – the so called delivery mode. Personal responsibility is added as a predictor of self-protective behavior in this study. The first study of chapter 4 consists of a behavioral-training-effectiveness study (n = 47), exploring whether a behavioral training (an active form of risk communication) increases participants’ efficacy beliefs and self-protectiveness. In the second study of chapter 4 – using a random sample of the population of Borne prone to the risks related to the transportation of chemical substances by train (n = 614) – my co-authors and I test if the delivery mode used when communication about risks (behavioral training vs. information only vs. no information) is a predictor of efficacy beliefs and self-protectiveness. Results show that actively informing citizens (by means of a behavioral training) increases levels of efficacy beliefs and self-protectiveness to a significantly larger extent than the passive approach in which individuals are merely informed. The results show that an active approach in risk communication is more effective in increasing the self-protectiveness of the population with regard to external safety risks. Furthermore, personal responsibility proves to be an important additional predictor of self-protectiveness.

In chapter 5, social norm is added as an additional predictor of self-protectiveness. Although the concept of social norm is a well-known predictor of behavior in social psychological theoretical models such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), it has not been studied intensively within the safety domain. According to Verroen, Gutteling and de Vries (2013), people’s behavior in preparing for a crisis as well as their behavior during a crisis is partly predicted by their perceived social norm regarding safe behavior. I propose that social norm, together with perceived feasibility (self-efficacy) and the expected usefulness (response-efficacy) of risk-mitigating options, might predict self-protectiveness. Furthermore, I take the perspective that a behavioral training (active risk communication) in which peer interaction is stimulated, leads to a more positive social norm and subsequently higher levels of self-protective behavior than passive risk communication. This study is conducted in the Risk Factory – a state-of-the-art education-center in which children (age: 9 – 13) experience real-life risks first hand and learn how to deal with dangerous situations. This study focused on fire safety and emergency situations as research topics. A sample of children from 14 primary schools (n = 365) randomly assigned to one of three conditions (behavioral training vs. passive information vs. no information) is used. Results show that social norm – together with self-efficacy and response-efficacy - are important predictors of self-protective behavior regarding safety risks among children. These results indicate that when preparing individuals for a disaster or crisis by means of risk communication, one ideally should also take the social context of recipients into account. Citizens that have a positive social norm and perceive risk mitigating options as both feasible (high levels of self-efficacy) and useful (high levels of response-efficacy) are most likely to engage in adequate risk behaviors. Also, this study shows that an active way of communicating about risks is more effective in increasing self-protective behavior of individuals when compared to standard-passive forms of risk communication.

In chapter 6, the effect of risk message repetition on self-protectiveness in the short- and long-term is examined more closely. This study focuses on emergency situation and internet safety as risk topics. I assume that risk message repetition increases the level of self-protective behavior to a larger extent than providing only one single risk message or than providing no risk message at all. My co-authors and I chose a behavioral training (active risk-communication) as the delivery mode since research indicates that this form is more effective in increasing self-protectiveness than standard-passive techniques of risk communication. While a large amount of literature in advertising and persuasion try to explain the influence of message repetition on attitudes and behavior (Zajonc, 1968; Berlyne, 1970; Cacioppo & Petty 1989), within the risk communication literature the effect of message repetition on self-protectiveness has not been studied intensively (Witte 1992, 1994; Shi & Smith 2016).  This study provides crucial additional information on the effect of message repetition in a real-life safety setting, answering the question: does message repetition increase the actual self-protective behavior of individuals in both the short- and long-term?

The study is again conducted in the Risk Factory among primary school children (age 9 – 13) randomly assigned to one of three conditions (behavioral training repetition vs. behavioral training vs. no information (n = 265). Results show that risk message repetition positively influences actual self-protective behavior in both the short- and long-term. Individuals participating in a behavioral training and that receive a risk message repetition, engage in significantly more self-protective behaviors than respondents who do not receive a risk message repetition in both the short- and long-term.

Overall, the results show that risk communication is most effective when recommended risk mitigating actions can be viewed by the public as effective in mitigating the threat. Therefore, risk communication efforts need to focus primarily on communicating risk-mitigating options that the target audience perceives as useful. Providing citizens with the opportunity to practice these behaviors as well as emphasizing their own personal responsibility, are two options that might positively influence this perceived usefulness of risk mitigating options. Also, this thesis shows that citizens that have a positive social norm regarding safe behaviors, are more willing to engage in self-protectiveness. This stresses the need to incorporate social norm in current risk communication campaigns. Finally, since results show that citizens who receive multiple similar risk messages are more willing to engage in risk mitigating behavior in the short- and long-term, risk message repetition can be used in order to increase the self-protectiveness of the population.

The similarities in results found between our research populations (children vs. adults), provide a first indication that comparable constructs predict self-protectiveness for different populations in our society. The different results found between risk topics in this thesis ask for a better understanding of the influence of the type of risk on the relationship between delivery mode and (predictors of) self-protective behavior.

Read here the complete thesis