Gulf oil spill: NSF awards rapid response grant to study emotional response to disaster

July 15, 2010

Political scientists at Louisiana State University want to know how your close friends and family influence you during times of crisis. They say the information could be crucial to understanding how people make social and political decisions in the context of a major disaster such as the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Our study is unique in its focus on the ways in which social context shapes individual responses to disaster," said LSU Associate Political Science Professor and co-project lead Christopher Kenny. "Individuals do not experience events such as an oil spill in isolation -- and so the previous research, which focused primarily on individual responses, only tells part of the story."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a rapid response grant to Kenny and two other LSU co-project leads: political science professors Kathleen Bratton and Christopher Weber. NSF awarded the grant to study the emotional and behavioral responses of individuals who live in coastal communities contending with the oil spill's consequences.

The researchers argue that the way of life in coastal communities grappling with the oil spill is at risk, and to fully understand the repercussions, one must study not only individual responses to the disaster, but also how social context shapes those responses.

"People are likely experiencing an array of emotions in response to the oil spill," said Kenny. "In this study, we mainly focus on negative emotions -- sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, disgust, and fear. However, we are also interested in two positive emotions -- optimism and hope -- that we expect are felt by many in response to the spill."

The researchers also are interested in other ways in which people cope with disaster. The study also asks about social and political trust, assessments of responsibility for the spill, and opinions about the institutions tasked with clean-up.

Investigators will study these questions through surveys of individuals in two coastal Louisiana communities. They will start with a random sample, then supplement it by using snowball techniques wherein initial respondents refer investigators to their friends and family for additional interviews. Researchers will contrast the results with similarly situated neighbors and co-workers to get a better picture of how people use social networks during a crisis to obtain information and make decisions.

Unlike other types of disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes, residents dealing with the oil spill are not forced to leave their communities in the short term, giving researchers a unique opportunity to examine how established, local, social networks form and shape emotional decisions in response to disaster.

Information from the study may be of interest to public officials and others interested in disaster response and management. This type of information potentially could have benefited response managers after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., or the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002.

"In general, the better we understand how people cope and respond to a disastrous event, the better able we are to help them deal with the negative consequences of that event," said Kenny.

The NSF grant is one of many Gulf oil spill-related rapid response awards made by the federal agency. NSF's response involves active research in social sciences, geosciences, computer simulation, engineering, biology, and other fields. So far more than two dozen awards have been made, totaling more than $3 million.
For more on the RAPID program, please see the RAPID guidelines. See also a regularly updated list of RAPIDs targeting the Gulf oil spill response. Because RAPID grants are being awarded continuously, media can also contact Josh Chamot in OLPA ( for the latest information on granted awards.

National Science Foundation

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