We Need a GAO study of the Terrified Traveler

Our government is warning us that something bad may or may not happen in a small backwater known as “Europe” and therefore we should “be vigilant”.

I understand the value of letting public safety personnel know about elevated terrorism risk, and I know some of this is just CYA behavior in case something bad does indeed happen, but I would like GAO to do a study of whether travelers from the general public change their behavior in any way in response to vague warnings such as this (I don’t).

GAO could draw a random sample of 1000 frequent travelers to Europe (or wherever the next warning occurs) and ask them if the vague warning made them do anything post-warning that they didn’t do pre-warning. If they didn’t, these warnings are a waste of money and ought to be stopped.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “We Need a GAO study of the Terrified Traveler”

  1. I'm noticing today that Britain is warning about possible terror attacks in France, and France is warning about possible attacks in Britain. At some point it just starts to sound like they want people to keep their travel Euros/pounds in their home countries.

  2. I, personally, am skeptical of the value of the warnings, and think that whole airport safety regime (re: hijacking and terrorism) is wildly overdone — a lot of ridiculous ceremonial inconvenience to "prove" the authorities are "doing 'all' they can". I'd like to see reform of the whole regime, and color-coded terror alerts do seem to me to be a defining feature of a wholly ill-considered scheme.

    But, I don't know that a facially plausible hypothesis that vague warnings are, somehow, effective necessarily rests on the self-aware behaviors of typical travellers. The desired behavioral change might be contingent on rare circumstances, such as a passenger observing some odd behavior — abandoned luggage, overheard conversation, anxious behaviors among fellow travellers — and reporting it, instead of ignoring it. Or, it might mean that passengers, on average or at the margin, are more observant of the rules, on arriving early or packing carry-ons, in ways that make it somewhat easier for professionals to spot the black swan. So, another line of investigation might lie along the lines investigating what the observed behavioral responses are, and how the response affects and stresses "the system", such as it is.

    Your proposal for a GAO poll comes dangerously close to the "common sense" policy analysis championed by the Tea Party folks: let's poll the man-on-the-street and let his ill-considered opinion dictate policy.

  3. Keith,

    It's apparently more than just CYA. After the PanAm 747 blew up over Lockerbie, our Congress apparently passed a law requiring the State Department to issue traveler's advisories. Because nobody wants to expose sources and methods, we get these extremely vague 'advisories.'

    Personally, I want them to go from color-coding to people coding. The old "orange" alert could become "Boehner", the "red" alert could be renamed "Beck" and the old "yellow" could be… hmmmm… "O'Donald" since she's privy to classified information about the Yellow Peril to Our Democracy.

    We don't need names for "blue" or "green", SFAIK neither was ever used.

  4. Bruce

    You say smart things, and then say something that given your evident intelligence seems an intentional misinterpretation:

    Your proposal for a GAO poll comes dangerously close to the “common sense” policy analysis championed by the Tea Party folks: let’s poll the man-on-the-street and let his ill-considered opinion dictate policy.

    I proposed that one of the most respected evaluation agencies in the country design a study of a group of people specifically selected for research because a policy is supposed to have an effect on them, and suggested that the study see if that effect was obtained by the policy. If you truly see no difference between that and a "poll" of what the "man-on-the-street" thinks of what the guv'mint is up to, you are sipping tea yourself. If you recognize the difference which I believe you do, dial down the sarcasm brother, ain't no shame in being smart and polite at the same time.

  5. As I am staying in Berlin right now I'll chime in: no. I can't leave where I am because I have work to do and I can't change my behavior because the only thing that is 'putting me at risk' is being in Berlin. I see the same people at the train in the morning I always do so I assume Berliners don't know what to make of the warnings either.

  6. When one of these alerts pops up I give extra thought to my visit to the airport. I try to eliminate any electronics or tubes of liquid that could raise my profile in the mind of some overzelous drone. I take extra care with selecting my clothes and grooming (don't know if that matters but you can't be too careful). And I always make sure I wear underwear that won't be embarassing in a coversational situation.

    Yep, going through the airport has gotten pretty scarry. As to concerns about being blown up on a train: I think it far more likely to get killed in a car wreck on the way to the airport.

    As to the rational of terror alerts: It's election time and Republicans are still running the anti-terror organs of the government. A scared voter is a vote for the GOP!

  7. I'm not planning a trip to Europe, but if I were, I'd be sad since I'd rather go when everything's going along as usual (whatever that means). But it's approaching US election time and I bet the overheard terrorists conversations are buzzing.

    It's a conundrum. They didn't raise the color code but just gave a vague warning. What if instead they told only the insiders and something happened? Why, the insiders would turn the administration in — to the general public: Look! They could have warned you!

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