Why do we often not take warnings seriously?

Andrea Kiesel, in our everyday lives we are constantly being warned: be it storm warnings on our cell phones, a false alarm from the fire alarm or the test alarm for the fire drill. Don’t we get dulled by all the warnings at some point?

Yes that is a problem. The decisive factor is whether the warnings that reach us are actually relevant to our everyday lives. This is often not the case and can mean that at some point we no longer respond to an alert. Warning apps in particular are problematic in this regard. On the one hand, they sometimes – as with the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley – do not pass on a warning in the event of a disaster. On the other hand, many users receive a severe weather warning every few days, which it is unclear whether it even applies to their place of residence. At some point they just ignore the warning because it has no relevance to them. Because the less often I have experienced a dangerous situation after a warning, the more I tend to ignore it in the future.

Against this background, does a test warning like the one on today’s nationwide warning day make any sense at all?

Yes. A test warning does not necessarily have a negative impact on serious warnings. There are often fire warnings at school, where people practice how everyone should behave in the event of a fire. This is also a helpful exercise, because it is the only way for school classes to know where the assembly points are in the school and which escape routes there are. Above all, I think it makes sense to try out all the technical possibilities that can be used as warning devices. Because many no longer live near sirens – and even the church bells are still interpreted by very few as a warning. In this respect, we need new warning concepts. Preferably something like it used to be, when you had the radio on more often and then always reacted to the announcements – after all, many people don’t do that anymore. Mobile phones would probably be the easiest way to warn people these days, but the warning has to work and reach people.

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“When people hear sudden and automatic cues, they stop and focus their attention on their current task.”

Andrea Kiesel, psychologist at the University of Freiburg

How can it be possible for people to take a warning seriously?

That depends on what you want to warn about. When it comes to a warning that will happen in the next few hours, for example, people need specific information about what the danger is and how to behave. During a snowstorm, for example, it is important not to get in the car and drive off in the first place. If, on the other hand, it is a question of alerting people to an urgent, immediate danger, then clear warning signals are first required – for example the signal tones that we are familiar with from sirens or fire alarms.

When people hear sudden and automatic cues, they stop and focus their attention on their current task. That is exactly what you want to achieve in such situations. It is therefore important that the sound does not simply disappear in our everyday life. In a quiet room, a tone does not have to be so loud, but it does in a noisy environment – and the warning signal may also have to be accompanied by light. We know that from the Martinshorn, for example.

In these situations, too, people certainly need guidance and instructions on how to behave.

In any case. Warnings often don’t work if people don’t know how to act – and that’s exactly the problem with warnings like the ones we experience on Warning Day. It’s not enough just to pull people out of their current job and tell them: There’s something now. They are also supposed to perform a very specific action so that they can protect themselves from danger. After all, if there is a fire in the school, everyone needs to know how to get out of the building. Of course you can also practice this, but it is important that we also provide information on how everyone has to behave in the event of acute warnings.

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But isn’t it disturbing that we depend so heavily on it?

In Germany, people are certainly not as sensitive to catastrophes as in other countries. The older generations still knew what different signals mean and how to react to them. In my opinion, this knowledge is no longer so widely available today. Fortunately, Germany is a very safe country, which is one of the reasons why we rate the risks as much lower. In Israel, people deal with potentially dangerous situations in a completely different way – and also in Ukraine, because of the war, people pay much more attention to sirens and other warning signals. After all, those who have gone through crises and catastrophes rate their own risk much higher. Many years later, people who have lived in war zones still cringe at sounds that remind them of the war.

How dangerous can it be if we don’t get any instructions on how to act when there are warnings?

This typically leads to people not knowing what to do and maybe even panicking. But what you also often experience is that people withdraw into a kind of private space and feel a false sense of security there. For example, the fire in the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland 20 years ago saw people flee in their own cars – for some it was a deadly trap. This shows how important it is to issue warnings with very clear instructions for action.

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