Exploring the “Cry Wolf” Hypothesis

November 1998 (VOL. 16, NO. 3)

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The “cry wolf” hypothesis argues that individuals who have experienced predictions of disasters that do not materialize will discount the validity of subsequent disaster warnings. This belief in the false alarm effect is widely mentioned in the disaster literature, and anecdotal material appears to support the validity of the hypothesis. This study of a false alarm earthquake warning supports experimental findings indicating that cancellation of a disaster warning leads to a false alarm effect. Following cancellation of the threat by the nonappearance of the predicted earthquake, 46.7 percent of the panel respondents indicated that they would pay less attention whereas only 16.7 percent said that they would pay more attention to a future earthquake prediction. The panel data also suggest that the mass media were substantial contributors to the observed false alarm effect, while at the same time the media escaped blame their contributions to the problem.