The Way We Process Risks Can Keep Us in Harm’s Way

With massive wildfires terrorizing the West Coast and communities along the Gulf and Caribbean bracing for peak hurricane season, Americans once again have natural disasters on their minds. As many families continue to grapple with the historic destruction seen in 2017—during which extreme weather events caused a record $306 billion in damage in the United States and strained the nation’s disaster-response resources—ominous forecasts of what 2018 has in store suggest the specter of such devastation could be the new normal for large swaths of the country.

People’s heightened concern in the wake of last year’s record-breaking catastrophes did not go unnoticed by those responding to these disasters, who identified in them a silver lining. As St. Petersburg, Florida, mayor Rick Kriseman told a reporter shortly after Hurricane Irma hit, “Having seen what happened with Harvey,” residents were “really ready to believe that this could happen here … I hate to say it worked to our benefit, but I think it did.”

Similarly, reporting from Southern California on the conspicuously few casualties relative to the fires in Napa and Sonoma, NPR reporter Eric Westervelt noted, “People are telling me—look, those deadly fires were certainly on our minds when these broke out. And that may have helped them react fast and really heed the call from firefighters to evacuate.”

In a perfect world, we would respond to risks regardless of when the last disaster hit the country. In reality, we often underestimate threats until after they occur.

The notion that people take emergency communications more seriously in the wake of earlier disasters is not unfounded—one researcher has even dubbed it “The Harvey Effect.”

In a perfect world, we would respond to risks regardless of when the last disaster hit the country. In reality, we often underestimate threats until after they occur, appreciating the danger only after we’ve witnessed the consequences. And while disasters like Harvey and Maria or the Sonoma fires might be top of mind when they strike, it’s unlikely that they will stay there for long.

Evaluating probabilities around an event like a hurricane is difficult enough even for experts, who dive into data and trends. It’s safe to say the average American doesn’t do the same. Instead, we tend to rely on the availability heuristic—how readily similar examples come to mind. As a result, our intuitive sense of the likelihood of a rare event tends to spike immediately after it occurs. Just like sales of airline tickets after the September 11th terrorist attacks, images of Houston under 50 inches of water likely shaped Floridians’ response to disaster advisories and evacuation orders for the better.

We’re lucky that nature doesn’t always unleash disasters in such rapid succession. But that also means the next major hurricane or wildfire is unlikely to be preceded by circumstances that so neatly focus our attention on the threats they pose.

Evaluating probabilities around an event like a hurricane is difficult enough even for experts…It’s safe to say the average American doesn’t do the same.

Fortunately, there are several behavioral science insights that reveal how we subjectively construe risk, and suggest how we can ensure people respond accordingly.

One way to do this is to tap into the vivid memories people have of specific storms. For example, rather than communicating the threat posed by a hurricane with the oft-cited Saffir-Simpson categories (the “category 1-5” that you’d hear on the news), benchmarking an impending storm to recent disasters like Harvey or Sandy that are well-known among target audiences can communicate risks in a way that non-experts better appreciate. While overly alarmist messages can backfire if people suspect the threat is being overblown, a clear warning that references vivid and distressing memories can be an effective way to motivate people to take disasters seriously.

Not surprisingly, the best way to limit the damage of future disasters is to get people to guard against the risks in the first place. Here, too, behavioral science has something to offer.

Benchmarking an impending storm to recent disasters like Harvey or Sandy…can communicate risks in a way that non-experts better appreciate.

One of the more alarming statistics to emerge from the flooding in Houston was that fewer than 20 percent of homeowners had purchased flood insurance. While it’s possible that these homeowners were fully aware of the risk, it’s likely that many residents were blindsided by the scale of their financial exposure. In the week that Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, for instance, searches of “flood insurance” in Texas increased over 30-fold compared to the week before the storm, according to data from Google Trends, by which point such policies could do little to help uninsured victims. While the final tally of residential losses due to Harvey is still unknown, estimates put the overall tab between $25 billion and $37 billion, of which less than $10 billion is insured.

We also know that people’s decisions about whether to buy a home in a disaster-prone area, to take out insurance, or to invest in mitigation measures can vary depending on how information on the risks, costs, and benefits is framed. For example, studies have shown that people respond differently to hearing that a home faces an annual flood risk of 5 percent versus a roughly 50-50 chance of flooding in the next 15 years, even though the underlying probability is the same. At the same time, the big, up-front costs of most mitigation measures overwhelm the diffuse, distant, and stochastic benefits of decreased risk. Using longer time frames, properly aligned with the horizons over which families consider an investment in something like a home, can help people make better decisions about whether to move to a flood- or fire-prone area, and whether or not to take measures to mitigate or insure against those risks.

Understanding how people respond to the risk of natural disasters offers a promising path to help us plan for these threats and limit their consequences. Further empirical and applied work has the potential to reveal the most effective ways to frame emergency communications, when and how to deliver them, and who should convey them—not only to boost compliance with evacuation orders, but also to help people more fully appreciate underlying risks in the first place. After a year marked by historic natural disasters, we have a unique opportunity to limit their destructive force in the future. With the frequency and severity of such events expected to increase, if not now, then when?