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Keywords:

  • Flu epidemic;
  • risk perception;
  • scenario simulation;
  • terrorism

While extensive risk perception research has focused on emotions, cognitions, and behavior at static points in time, less attention has been paid to how these variables might change over time. This study assesses how negative affect, threat beliefs, perceived risk, and intended avoidance behavior change over the course of an escalating biological disaster. A scenario simulation methodology was used that presents respondents with a video simulation of a 15-day series of local news reports to immerse respondents in the developing details of the disaster. Systemic manipulation of the virus's causal origin (terrorist attack, medical lab accident, unknown) and the respondent's proximity to the virus (local vs. opposite coast) allowed us to investigate the dynamics of public response. The unfolding scenario was presented in discrete episodes, allowing responses to be tracked over the episodes. The sample includes 600 respondents equally split by sex and by location, with half in the Washington, DC area, and half in the Los Angeles area. The results showed respondents’ reactions to the flu epidemic increased as the disaster escalated. More importantly, there was considerable consistency across respondents’ emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to the epidemic over the episodes. In addition, the reactions of respondents proximally closer to the epidemic increased more rapidly and with greater intensity than their distant counterparts. Finally, as the flu epidemic escalated, both terrorist and accidental flu releases were perceived as being less risky and were less likely to lead to avoidance behavior compared to the unknown flu release.