Why do peo­ple stay put dur­ing hur­ri­canes?

Risk ex­pert Robert J. Meyer ex­plains dis­as­ter psy­chol­ogy

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Mey­err@whar­ton.upenn.edu

Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Florence made land­fall in the Caroli­nas, a few things were still un­cer­tain — the ex­act place the storm would strike, the strength of the winds, how much flood­ing would oc­cur along the coast and in­land.

But one thing was ob­vi­ous: When the storm fi­nally ar­rived, thou­sands of res­i­dents would find them­selves un­pre­pared. Many would re­turn to flooded homes, only to re­al­ize they don’t carry flood in­sur­ance. More would face days (or weeks) with­out elec­tri­cal power — and then dis­cover that they’d failed to gather enough sup­plies to en­dure the post-storm re­cov­ery pe­riod. Some would choose not to evac­u­ate de­spite warn­ings to do so, only to be­come trapped in their houses, pray­ing that the struc­tures would sur­vive the wind and storm surge. Some would need­lessly and trag­i­cally lose their lives be­cause of th­ese mis­takes.

Lack of prepa­ra­tion helps ex­plain the sever­ity of ma­te­rial losses af­ter re­cent dis­as­ters, even when peo­ple have been warned. And lack of prepa­ra­tion, re­search shows, is caused by cog­ni­tive bi­ases that lead peo­ple to un­der­play warn­ings and make poor de­ci­sions, even when they have the in­for­ma­tion they need.

The pat­tern oc­curs again and again. When Hur­ri­cane Sandy hit New York and the Mid-At­lantic states in 2012, for ex­am­ple, 40

peo­ple drowned; the cir­cum­stances weren’t known in ev­ery case, but most did not heed warn­ings to evac­u­ate flood-prone coastal ar­eas. Yet the storm had been ac­cu­rately fore­cast, and, what’s more, peo­ple be­lieved the forecasts: A sur­vey con­ducted be­fore­hand found not only that res­i­dents in the area were acutely aware of the threat but that many be­lieved the storm would be even worse than it was. One day be­fore Sandy ar­rived, for ex­am­ple, New Jer­sey res­i­dents be­lieved there was a 70 to 80 per­cent chance that they would ex­pe­ri­ence hur­ri­cane-force winds — odds far higher than the ac­tual risk they faced, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates at the time pro­vided by the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter.

Yet prepa­ra­tions for the storm were com­par­a­tively lim­ited: Only 20 per­cent of res­i­dents sur­veyed in­di­cated that they had an evac­u­a­tion plan. What went wrong? In this case, the cog­ni­tive bias of ex­ces­sive op­ti­mism kicked in: Res­i­dents knew all too well that a storm was at their doorstep and that many peo­ple would be af­fected — they just thought it wouldn’t af­fect them.

Then, the bias of herd think­ing com­pounded the prob­lem. Look­ing around and see­ing that few oth­ers were mak­ing prepa­ra­tions, res­i­dents felt no so­cial pres­sure to do more.

Sev­eral other psy­cho­log­i­cal bi­ases also un­der­mine prepa­ra­tion for dan­ger­ous nat­u­ral events. My­opia pre­vents short-term, costly in­vest­ments (buy­ing in­sur­ance or evac­u­at­ing, for in­stance) to stave off a po­ten­tial fu­ture loss. Un­for­tu­nately, most of us tend to be short­sighted in this way, fo­cus­ing on the im­me­di­ate cost or in­con­ve­nience of pre­emp­tive ac­tion rather than the more dis­tant, ab­stract penalty for fail­ing to act. That leads us to forgo thor­ough prepa­ra­tion.

Am­ne­sia is also ev­i­dent in peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to news of a storm head­ing their way. Even when we have been through a dis­as­ter be­fore, we tend to for­get what it felt like the last time — the dis­com­fort of be­ing with­out power for days, the chal­lenges of re­pairs. The emo­tional punch of events fades. Ex­am­ples of this type of for­get­ting are ev­i­dent in many ar­eas. Af­ter the fi­nan­cial meltdown of 20082009, as af­ter other crises, there were calls to curb ex­ces­sive risk-tak­ing on Wall Street, to min­i­mize the pos­si­bil­ity of a re­cur­rence. But af­ter the re­cov­ery, in­vestors were right back at it; they had a hard time reimag­in­ing the pain of the down­turn.

Sim­ple re­minders do lit­tle to help. Many cities that have ex­pe­ri­enced deadly dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing Galve­ston, Tex. — where a mon­ster hur­ri­cane in 1900 killed more than 6,000 res­i­dents — have mon­u­ments to com­mem­o­rate th­ese events. But they ev­i­dently don’t evoke the hor­ror of liv­ing through them and there­fore don’t re­ally in­spire prepa­ra­tion.

In­er­tia and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion are also en­e­mies of sound de­ci­sion-mak­ing. When we are

Res­i­dents knew all too well that a storm was at their doorstep and that many peo­ple would be af­fected — they just thought it wouldn’t af­fect them.

un­sure of what to do in the face of an in­com­ing storm, we tend to stick to the sta­tus quo — do­ing noth­ing. If we are un­cer­tain about when to evac­u­ate, we tend not to evac­u­ate at all. And we tend to sim­plify our course of ac­tion, se­lec­tively fo­cus­ing on a few fac­tors. When prepar­ing for a hur­ri­cane, many things may need do­ing: ar­rang­ing for lodg­ing in the event of an evac­u­a­tion, se­cur­ing enough wa­ter and sup­plies to last 72 hours, fill­ing cars with gas, lo­cat­ing al­ter­na­tive power sup­plies. In the face of such com­plex­ity, we may take care of one or two tasks and con­sider the job done. Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Sandy, for ex­am­ple, 90 per­cent of res­i­dents se­cured sup­plies — but typ­i­cally only enough to get them through a sin­gle day with­out power. Again, most failed to make evac­u­a­tion plans.

It may be dis­cour­ag­ing to learn how our minds work to de­feat us. (To be sure, there are many rea­sons be­yond psy­chol­ogy that peo­ple fail to act. They can lack the fi­nan­cial means to do so, or be lim­ited by age or dis­abil­ity; that means the def­i­ni­tion of pre­pared­ness ought to in­clude check­ing on one’s neigh­bors.) But there is a sil­ver lin­ing: Know­ing why we un­der­pre­pare is the first step to know­ing how to avoid th­ese mis­takes.

The key to bet­ter pre­pared­ness is not to elim­i­nate th­ese bi­ases — a hopeless task, since they’re part of who we are — but rather to de­sign mea­sures that an­tic­i­pate them. Con­sider the bias to­ward sim­pli­fi­ca­tion: the ten­dency for peo­ple to con­sider them­selves pre­pared af­ter tak­ing one or two ac­tions. The fix? Of­fi­cials shouldn’t dis­trib­ute long, generic check­lists of pre­pared­ness mea­sures, which, re­search sug­gests, will lead peo­ple to pick just a cou­ple (of­ten the eas­i­est rather than the most im­por­tant). Or­dered lists are bet­ter. Tell peo­ple: “If you are go­ing to do only one thing to pre­pare for a storm, it should be this. If you are go­ing to do three, you ought to . . .” To fight in­er­tia, work hard to per­suade peo­ple to de­velop pre­cise pre­pared­ness plans that in­clude a shop­ping list of sup­plies and ex­act plans for when and where to evac­u­ate, should that be nec­es­sary.

Re­cent years have seen tremen­dous ad­vances in our abil­ity to pre­dict nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as hur­ri­canes, floods and heat waves — ex­treme events that may be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon as the cli­mate changes. But th­ese ad­vances have done lit­tle to re­duce the dam­ag­ing cost of th­ese events. That will re­quire ad­vances of a dif­fer­ent kind: a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the psy­cho­log­i­cal bi­ases that shape how peo­ple make de­ci­sions, and bet­ter pre­pared­ness sys­tems that an­tic­i­pate and work around th­ese bi­ases. Robert J. Meyer is co-di­rec­tor of the Whar­ton Risk Man­age­ment and De­ci­sion Pro­cesses Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and a co-au­thor of “The Os­trich Para­dox: Why We Un­der­pre­pare for Dis­as­ters,” with Howard Kun­reuther.


Cog­ni­tive bi­ases — such as ex­ces­sive op­ti­mism and herd think­ing — help ex­plain peo­ple’s lack of pre­pared­ness for nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.


A life­guard stand is re­moved Wed­nes­day at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. On Fri­day morn­ing, Hur­ri­cane Florence made land­fall near the town.

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