The Threat Level Is Elevated! The Threat Level Is Elevated!

In his treatise on the psychology of terrorist alarms, Philip G. Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, outlines his theory on four reasons for the success of Revere's famous ride to alert the colonials of the British approach.

In his treatise on the psychology of terrorist alarms, Philip G. Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, outlines what he calls the "Paul Revere paradigm for successful dissemination of public alarms." He bases his theory on four reasons for the success of Revere's famous ride to alert the colonials of the British approach.

  • Revere was known to be a credible communicator.
  • His alarm was focused on a specific event.
  • It was designed to spur citizens to act.
  • It called for a concrete set of actions in response.

Zimbardo adds that contemporary psychological research has supported this theory by finding that such alarms should arouse only a moderate level of motivation. "Too low doesn't energize action, and too high creates emotional overload and competing, distracting behaviors," he says.

Zimbardo's paradigm explains why the national threat levels have created so much confusion. The color-coded threat scale was designed to signal activity to the military, the police and other protective servicesbut not to the public. So when a new threat level is announced, the public is alarmed but has nothing to do in response.

Zimbardo notes that after the CSO issues an alarm, he must remember to debrief employees so that any misinformation can be corrected and to reinforce the value of people's efforts. That is particularly important when a threat doesn't materialize. "Some reputable authority must provide an explanation of why and then eventually lower or remove the threat alert," Zimbardo says.

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