As I write this, much remains uncertain about Hurricane Florence’s landfall in the Carolinas — the exact place the storm will strike, the strength of the winds, how much flooding will occur along the coast and inland.
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 sound 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. While we may remember the bare facts of the event, emotions are what tend to drive action, and those memories fade the fastest. Examples of this type of forgetting are evident in many areas. After the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, 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 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 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.
It may be discouraging to hear 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 that the definition of preparedness ought to include checking on one’s neighbors.) But there is a silver lining: knowing why we under-prepare is the first step to knowing how to avoid these mistakes. The key is to accept the fact that the biases I’ve mentioned are a part of our cognitive DNA.