Caveats for Research on Psychological Responses to CBRN Disasters

This set of articles attempt to provide a foundation for building resilience to future types of disasters by considering the psychological and behavioural responses to previous disasters as well as the conclusions from the wider literature on disaster psychology. Where possible we have tried to draw out the implications of the research for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents. However certain caveats need to be borne in mind when considering these.

Lack of Research

Little research exists specifically on CBRN incidents. Therefore, findings have been discussed and extrapolated from other areas of disaster research, and while it is suggested that there are many similarities between different incidents and consequently arguments for making these comparisons, it should be recognised that reactions in the event of an unprecedented CBRN incident may not necessarily be those predicted. Moreover, different types of CBRN incident may have differing outcomes.

This article is an extract from my 82-page report "Psychological and Behavioural Responses to CBRN Disasters: Implications for emergency response, community, and business continuity" Get the full report...

Cultural bias

It should also be noted that the vast majority of the research undertaken in this field, and therefore the literature referred to in this study emanates from the United States of America and therefore may be culturally biased. Cultural norms of altruism and volunteering in the US, where for example a high proportion of fire-fighters are volunteers, may not necessarily apply elsewhere. Similarly, the individualistic culture of the US may have implications for response that are not mirrored in other countries (Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001a).

In consideration of the frequency of disasters, while the UK may experience fewer natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornados, than the US, it has a longer history of coping with terrorist attack. Crucially, cultural factors could therefore affect the generalizability of research conclusions. This is an area where greater research is required to investigate not only differences between countries, but also differences between cultural groups within countries in their response to disaster.(Phillips, Garza, & Neal, 1994).

Reliability and validity

It is clear from the literature that little systematic empirical work has been done in this area. While an increasing body of literature is emerging, much of the work relies on anecdotal evidence or else draws heavily on earlier conclusions. The extent to which some of these conclusions have been empirically tested is sometimes uncertain.

We have tried to draw attention to the distinction between empirical facts about disasters, and beliefs about disasters that may be held by the public, response personnel, and researchers themselves. These beliefs about disasters do not simply represent noise in the knowledge system, but may themselves exert a potent influence on human responses to disaster. There is explicit recognition of the existence of disaster myths in the literature, but it is also possible that there exist myths about myths.


These and other factors create complex behavioural patterns that are likely to differ between individuals and between groups of individuals and which increase the difficulty in distilling from the literature unambiguous and reliable conclusions about psychological and behavioural responses to CBRN-type disasters

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