Today is the 25 year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In my last post, I coined the term Irrational Radiation Stigma (IRS) to describe an unconscious reaction that might be created by the tragic nuclear catastrophe in Japan. I hypothesized that Terror Management Theory (TMT) could be used to develop hypotheses concerning the possible observable effects of unconscious stigma. Limiting such hypotheses to the economic arena, TMT might predict that for some window of time, Japanese goods might be seen as vaguely undesirable. Knowledge of the Japanese origin of goods might conjure up unconscious images of contamination, death, and the inevitability of death, and hence to a decrease in preference for Japanese products. The effects could be measured in terms of the price and volume of sold Japanese goods over the last few months, compared with averages for those months in other years. Perhaps certain goods might be more likely to stimulate such anxieties, consumables that go into our bodies, such as food and drink; perhaps next strongly affected would be food containers and cookware, or clothing that goes close to the skin. How do you feel about strawberries from Chernobyl, or anywhere in the Ukraine (once the Chernobyl association has been made salient)? Of course, what I am calling IRS would be mainly unconscious, so even though some of you are denying any feelings about it, in the super, you are still likely to walk past those red, juicy Chernobyl berries.
A non-zero significant difference between pre and post Fukushima is the safest scientific bet, because this hypothesis would pick up the effect of aversions and any counter-reaction (conscious or otherwise) to IRS. For example, one might predict that the degree of IRS effects would vary with the extent to which countries are committed to nuclear energy. Familiarity with a potential threat might lead to acclimation, or to sensitization, like living in a seismically active zone, versus living on the edge of an active volcano. Consumers in nuclear dependent France might show little to no IRS effect while countries that have avoided a nuclear energy strategy, such as perhaps Canada, would show more of an aversion. On the other hand, people living with a nuclear power plant in their back yards–say residents of New York City, which has nuclear plants closer to it than the distance of Fukushima stay-out zone–might show the strongest effects.
Of course, another way to test such effects is to conduct social psychology experiments. Imagine subjects (college sophomores, who else?) playing some variant of the TV game show “The Price Is Right.” The country of origin of the goods could be easily varied, and the prominence of the Fukushima situation could manipulate by exposing the subjects to some advertisement related material (preferably visual) prior to playing the pricing game.
One legitimate goal of such a research project (or even this arm-chair version of one) is to prevent IRS by making its possibility conscious. Almost three weeks ago, I saw the first buy-to-support-Japan sign in the window of a record store in my Seattle neighborhood. Record stores themselves are going extinct, so my guess is that the buy-to-support-Japan movement is huge by now via the ASI (artificial social intelligence) communication media that is replacing brick and mortar, at least in the recorded music business. Of course people can and do consciously examine humanitarian concerns and respond with charity and compassion. That kind of conscious decision-making, which often is grounded as much in emotional empathy and sympathy than reason, is the antithesis to IRS. In the not so long run, conscious decisions will carry the day, because Fukushima, half a world away, is not a direct threat to us. Researchers, act quickly while compassion is still gathering its wits about the degree and significance of human need in Japan.