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04 May 2022

King's researchers have significantly enhanced policy making, planning and response for emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, pandemics, and flooding.

Researchers at King’s have significantly enhanced policy making, planning and response for emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, pandemics, and flooding. This research has challenged long-standing assumptions about how the public perceives and behaves in the face of extreme events, leading to better response planning and public communications on risk and emergency response.

Emergency policies and plans are often based on inaccurate assumptions about public risk perceptions and behaviours. This can lead to situations where public behaviours overwhelm emergency response systems, leading to suboptimal outcomes. Research led by Professor Brooke Rogers OBE and Dr Julia Pearce in the Department of War Studies has helped improve understanding of the range of behavioural responses in public emergencies. It has also demonstrated the importance of public communication to inform protective health behaviours before, during, and after extreme events.

This body of research, spanning seven collaborative projects, applies theories of risk perception, risk communication and social psychology to understand and inform public psychological and behavioural responses to extreme events. This research provides evidence supporting a range of behavioural responses. It also demonstrates that the public are largely resilient to extreme events, challenging the long-held misconception of the 'panic-prone' public.

For example, their research on understanding and informing public responses to low likelihood, high impact events such as terrorist attacks has established that pre-event communications designed to encourage the public to undertake protective health behaviours during a terrorist attack (e.g. Run, Hide, Tell) are unlikely to increase the perceived risk from terrorism but can increase trust and confidence in the government and security services’ ability to provide guidance that can keep the public safe.

This research has also identified the importance of not only communicating what actions should be taken, but also advising the public about behaviours that should be avoided. Additionally, it has established that while the impact of guidance reduces over time, those who have viewed it continue to be more likely to adopt protective health behaviours than those who have received no guidance.

As a result, Professor Rogers and Dr Pearce have worked closely with a range of stakeholders to enhance the ability of organisations to inform and support public protective responses to extreme events, which decreases the likelihood of public behaviours overwhelming emergency response systems for a range of risks and threats. In so doing, they have used their research to change the ways that public responses are incorporated into UK national risk assessments, repositioned behavioural science at the heart of emergency response policy, and informed security-focussed communication with the public and industry.

For example, their leadership of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Science Expert Group (BSEG) has shaped the ways in which public responses are understood, incorporated and measured in the UK’s National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA). This, in turn, informs the National Risk Register, which is used for national, regional, and local emergency planning across the UK, and beyond. These efforts are replicated across many government departments, community groups and industry through extensive engagement and independent advisory roles.

The impact of King’s research is a direct result of the extensive engagement Professor Rogers and Dr Pearce have undertaken through project work and advisory roles. This includes longer-term cross government initiatives as well as significant contributions to fast-paced emergency events such as Covid-19 through participation in the UK Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and provision of scientific advice via SAGE behavioural science and ethnicity subgroups.

Professor Rogers is Chair of the Home Office Science Advisory Council and a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. She received an OBE in the 2018 New Years’ Honours List for ‘services to academia and government’ in recognition of her success in translating King’s research into evidence-based policy and practice for the emergency services, industry and local, national and international government organisations.

Thanks to the research conducted by Professor Rogers and Dr Pearce, our understanding of behavioural responses during public emergencies and the most effective ways of communicating with people to keep them safe, has been transformed. Over the last two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, this has been more important than ever.

HealthTechnology & Science

In this story

Brooke Rogers

Vice Dean (People & Planning) SSPP & Professor of Behavioural Science and Security

Julia Pearce

Reader in Social Psychology & Security Studies