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Cultural Models of Pfiesteria : Toward Cultivating More Appropriate Risk Perceptions

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Based on semistructured interviews (N = 7), informal interviewing (N = 63), and a survey (N = 790), this article describes the cultural models used by mid-Atlantic residents to understand Pfiesteria piscicida. A cultural model is a simplified way of understanding a complex system, shared by members of a culture. Eighty-eight percent of respondents understood Pfiesteria using one of four previously existing cultural models: a disease in fish, a parasite in fish, a water pollutant, and a toxin or poison. These models are not used by marine biologists, who are more likely to refer to Pfiesteria taxonomically or, in its fish killing form, to call it a predator. Our survey shows that the cultural model a respondent holds is correlated significantly with his or her believed pathway of human harm (e.g., eating fish versus swimming) and is correlated significantly but weakly with his or her behavioral responses. We conclude that existing cultural models, as the public has applied them to Pfiesteria, have led people to avoid a range of coastal activities and seafoods, in virtually all cases unnecessarily. Cultural models appear to explain public reaction better than previously hypothesized factors such as inaccurate media coverage. These findings suggest an approach to developing a pedagogical and communications strategy which could provide the public with a cultural model better matched to Pfiesteria.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 November 2000

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