THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STORMS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The news has been inundated recently with reports of Hurricane Florence, which is bashing North and South Carolina. I’ve always wondered why so many people refuse to evacuate when the government tells them to. And why people don’t adequately prepare even when they’re told exactly what to expect.

Hurricane Florence

I read an interesting article on this subject by Robert J. Meyer in the Washington Post on September 12, 2018. He addressed the psychological issues at play when people face an impending natural disaster. The article is called “Why do people stay put during hurricanes? Here’s what psychology says.”

Despite endless warnings and specific information and suggestions about what to do to stay safe, lack of preparedness is responsible for most of the property damage and loss of life in major storms. “…lack of preparedness…is caused by cognitive biases that lead people to underplay warnings and make poor decisions, even when they have the information they need.”

people shopping to prepare for hurricane

Failure to evacuate resulted in 40 drowning deaths in Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Surveys showed that only 20% of residents had a preparedness plan. And that storm was hyped up the wazoo! It hit my area so I know! We even took our boat out of the water and planted it in the parking lot of the marina to minimize the likelihood of costly damage.

What goes wrong in these situations? Here are some of the cognitive biases that lead us astray in natural disasters.

Excessive optimism is the first cognitive bias that kicks in. People understand that many residents of their area will be affected. They just don’t believe that THEY will be negatively affected. Others rationalize that they survived other storms without preparation so why not this one?

Hurricane Florence in North Carolina

Herd thinking also comes into play. If neighbors aren’t preparing then there’s no social pressure to do more than the basics.

Myopia is another key psychological factor in lack of adequate preparedness. People are short-sighted when it comes to spending money or expending energy on preëmptive actions. They focus on the immediate cost and discomfort, not the more abstract future benefit. So they cheap out on preparedness measures and take the easy way out.

Amnesia also colors people’s anticipation of a natural disaster. People tend to remember the facts of a past storm, but forget how awful it felt to live through it. Memories of emotions fade faster than memories of facts. So reminding people how bad it was the last time seems to have limited effect.

Sound decision-making is impaired by inertia and simplification. People who are unsure what to do, often do nothing. That’s the principle of “inertia at work.” Simplification results in people doing just a few of the many things necessary to be adequately prepared. The thinking goes, “I’ve done three out of twelve things to be safe so I should be okay.” In Hurricane Sandy, 90% of residents bought supplies – but only enough for ONE DAY without power. Woefully inadequate and unrealistic! We were without power for six days, and we were lucky!

The article concludes that the key to better preparedness in the future is accepting the reality of these destructive cognitive biases. We can’t change them so we have to work around them. We have to design preparedness plans that accept them and anticipate them. For example, give people ORDERED lists that say “If you’re only going to do three things, these are the three things you should do.”

Science has increased our ability to predict hurricanes and other natural disasters. But science can’t reduce the human and property damage done by these weather events.

Psychology is the key to helping people make better decisions when they are faced with nature’s destructiveness.

29 thoughts on “THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STORMS – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. We aren’t great about this either. Garry doesn’t believe the news. I bet neither does Tom. When Sandy was showing up, Garry was on Long Island and our local and well-regarded meteorologist told me to make sure he got the hell out of there. He was very grumpy about it, but I pointed out that Harvey Leonard SAID TO GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE. You can’t argue with Harvey.

    But we don’t have a generator, so it’s a bit of a moot point. If it’s winter, we have NO heat or water without power. No refrigeration, no nothing. We can lay in water for a few days, but after that, we are cooked.

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    1. So if you can’t surive at home without power, you have to evacuate! That’s the point of all these warnings. Assess your situation and act accordingly!

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    2. Actually I gave it a great deal of thought. When you become a boater, you get a real real respect for Mother Nature. In the year before Sandy we had a hurricane followed a month later by a freak snowstorm in October. In each case we were without power for over a week. These two events showed me that we were not in danger of any serious damage from a storm, no matter how serious because our house is in a valley surrounded by land and trees that break up any wind, no matter how strong. Also, in that a hurricane goes counter clock wise, any trees that may fall, will fall away from the house. This happened in Sandy. Two 80 foot trees got pushed over like twigs. But away from the house. Flooding is minimal because our land is on a hill and water just runs past us. That left power. A house without power is not a good place to be. I lived with it in the 1967 blackout for almost three weeks, int he winter, in upstate NY. It sucked. It took me almost a year but I finally got a generator installed. When Sandy hit, our power went out at 2:20 PM. And 10 seconds later, the generator kicked in and we had power for the next 7 days. Having said all this. If I thought we were in trouble, I’d be gone in a heartbeat.

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    1. That’s a very common state of mind – ignore something bad and maybe it won ‘t happen! Denial is one of the mental biases that the article didn’t address. Good point!

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  2. Our local volunteer fire unit runs bushfire information nights and we get information about how to prepare but I admit that my bushfire plan is pretty much get the animals and leave. I would not physically be able to defend my house so although have not planted trees near the house and there is no long grass or combustibles nearby I can’t do much more. I think my area is safer than many others but I know that bushfires can be freakish and jump roads, take out one building and leave the one next to it standing. You just don’t really know.

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    1. You’re smart to evacuate when you can’t do much to protect your property. At least protect yourself and your animals. Fires are really scary. I think you have less chance of survival in a fire than in a flood. But I’ve never experienced either so I don’t really know.

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  3. I think what appalls and annoys me are those very people who refuse to leave even when its mandatory, are now those same people who are sitting on their new floating house, screaming for help.
    I was watching a few snippets on the computer last night, and two people actually said “I didn’t think it was gonna be this bad…” missing the point that if it wasn’t, you could always come back. And the other point being, a lot of people are involved in rescue operations, and if you see those videos, it takes several people to rescue you.

    The other thing that might be involved: Pat Robertson, our beloved TV minister, told everyone that he was going to ‘pray that hurricane outta here’ and it went, but it went to a much more difficult place inland. He was overjoyed. He bragged about it. So I suspect, seeing as this was in the Carolinas, a lot people were praying to their particular flavor of deity to keep them safe. So were their ministers.

    I also noticed that a number of people are now trying to get BACK to their houses to make sure everything is okay. Like those people who even now in Hawaii are staking out their old property lines, buried under several hundred feet of lava. We have incredibly territorial instincts. But I noticed, in clips of all those people who were evacuating up those six lanes of highway last week, not one of them was dragging a UHaul or a trailer. If what they had in the house was so valuable, why didn’t they take it along?

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    1. I get really mad too at the people who won’t believe the dire reports but are the first to demand rescue when they stay put and get flooded out. I wish you could put those people at the end of the rescue line. You made your bed, now it’s under water, too bad! Especially since people have to risk their lives to rescue these dodos!

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  4. Somehow we seem to have a belief that nothing bad will happen to us. That feeling of invincibility that we had as teenagers stays with us to some extent allowed of our lives. Or maybe it is just me.

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    1. You’re right. People can’t imagine something bad happening to them so they just choose to ignore warnings of impending doom. People do have a sense of invincibility or lack of vulnerability that I just can’t understand. Bad things happen all the time to all sorts of people! Bad things have happened to all of us at some point in our lives. I can understand inertia and laziness. But denial is beyond myh comprehension!

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    1. Noone is blaming people who are too poor to make proper preparations in a natural disaster. But most cities and towns try to provide transportation for poor people to get to safety. Shelters are set up and buses are provided to get people there. Some people are also too old or sick to be able to adequately protect themselves. Hopefully there are organizations that can reach at least some of those people and get them to safety.

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    1. I get that. We are both too poor and we don’t have anywhere to go. But if it was life and death, so … you’re going to stay and die? We don’t have a generator and we can’t keep two weeks of supplies in a house that, without power, has neither water nor heat. So we keep enough stuff for a day or two, but after that, we have to go because we’ll freeze to death or starve or both. It’s not a real choice past a certain point.

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      1. I think the argument is that some people are too poor to even have cars to get them out of town. So poor people without a means of transportation have to rely on social services to provide them with transportation to a shelter. And they have toknow who to contact. Hopefully churches and senior centers inform poor people of their options. But I’m sure some poor people just get lost in the process,

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    1. I think the article was impying that they are just now doing the psychological research to document the mass psychology that goes on in natural disasters. Hopefully going forward, the psychological insights can be put to good use. But it takes time for protocols and methodology to trickle down to every city and town in the path of a major weather event.

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    1. I always used to think peple who stayed in areas with regular weather disasters were crazy or masochists. But I realized that moving is traumatic and expensive. And if you have jobs and family in an area, it’s hard to pick up roots and move. And where do you go?It’s really a big deal anda most people just can’t handle it.

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  5. Our danger isn’t hurricanes. We don’t get most of the really big ones in this weird little corner and as for flooding, we are far enough from the river so as long a the power stays on, we are okay. The problems are blizzards, snow, and loss of power. We do not have a generator and we aren’t like to get one soon, and there are no shelters other than the schools and no one takes dogs.

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