False Alarms and Missed Events: The Impact and Origins of Perceived Inaccuracy in Tornado Warning Systems



Theory and conventional wisdom suggest that errors undermine the credibility of tornado warning systems and thus decrease the probability that individuals will comply (i.e., engage in protective action) when future warnings are issued. Unfortunately, empirical research on the influence of warning system accuracy on public responses to tornado warnings is incomplete and inconclusive. This study adds to existing research by analyzing two sets of relationships. First, we assess the relationship between perceptions of accuracy, credibility, and warning response. Using data collected via a large regional survey, we find that trust in the National Weather Service (NWS; the agency responsible for issuing tornado warnings) increases the likelihood that an individual will opt for protective action when responding to a hypothetical warning. More importantly, we find that subjective perceptions of warning system accuracy are, as theory suggests, systematically related to trust in the NWS and (by extension) stated responses to future warnings. The second half of the study matches survey data against NWS warning and event archives to investigate a critical follow-up question—Why do some people perceive that their warning system is accurate, whereas others perceive that their system is error prone? We find that subjective perceptions are—in part—a function of objective experience, knowledge, and demographic characteristics. When considered in tandem, these findings support the proposition that errors influence perceptions about the accuracy of warning systems, which in turn impact the credibility that people assign to information provided by systems and, ultimately, public decisions about how to respond when warnings are issued.