Power to the People! Empowering the Public to Help Themselves

Consider not what you would say, but what information others want and need” from the book Should we Risk it?

Mitigation and preparation for low-frequency, high consequence events is like playing a game of chance, where people make decisions based on prospective gains and losses (Kammen and Hassenzahl, 1999; Kahneman and Tversky, 1979). “The odds” of something happening or not, plays into decision-making, but unfortunately, psychology usually plays more of a role in this arena than does rational behavior.

The concept of “Prospect Theory,” which is attributed to Kahneman and Tversky (1979), posits that people will weigh their potential gains and losses, and choose their level of risk based on potential gains, not potential losses. The authors made this argument by stating: “A well-understood process in individual decisions about risk is that people are risk averse (avoiding) when considering potential gains. This means that, in general, when people are deciding to make a bet, they will require better odds when the stakes are high”. In other words, if it would cost someone an extra $5,000 to seismically retro-fit their home, and that is a lot of money to them, they will want to be pretty sure that it is going to be worth the money, and that an earthquake is imminent.

Additionally, there are people (including lawmakers) who will regard any kind of scientific uncertainty as a way of arguing that there is no definitive evidence of a future event happening. For instance, some will use the argument that there are “Too many uncertainties” as way out of funding sustainable development and mitigation projects, in order to divert funding away from what they call “junk science” and toward whatever other agenda they may have (Mooney, 2005). Similarly, there are also people who will criticize earthquake modeling software because of any inherent uncertainties in data or lack of accuracy due to an unskilled analyst; Ultimately, what is actually at risk here is the public’s perception of the danger they are in and what steps they will take to protect themselves in the face of a hazard.

Between battling skeptics about whether or not sea-level rise may affect them, and short-sited politicians who can only see as far as their next election, there is the every-day citizen who needs information about hazards and what to do during an emergency. Some of these people cannot read (about 40% of the adult population in New Orleans is illiterate, for example), some don’t speak English, others don’t have access to social media or television.  How can we better empower people to make informed decisions in the face of catastrophe?

I have created an outline of the things that a planner or emergency management department might think about researching or implementing in order to reach citizens. Please feel free to add any other things that you think would be helpful to the discussion in the comments.

Research on what the community/public does not know. Do they know that they live downstream from a dam? Do they realize that the 100 year flood designation does not protect them from catastrophe; it only takes away the necessity of paying insurance? (etc.)

  • Address community-level risk-perceptions and investigate ways to overcome them
  • Different demographic groups have different risk perceptions; look at the “societal context”
  • Planners should ask themselves: ‘Do end users have the necessary resources to use this information to prepare/respond and recover from a situation?’ and ‘Will the officially recommended action be superior to alternative actions taken by friends, family or conventional wisdom?’

Deploy monthly “Get Prepared” action items via

  • Television
  • Radio
  • Leaflets
  • Newspaper section on preparedness
  • Billboards
  • Written so that readers with elementary education can understand
  • Social Media

Literacy programs, using basic risk literature

  • Planners may be able to write basic literature and partner with literacy programs

Communities to engage in hazard exercises/drills-need to investigate other incentives

Look at “Prospect Theory” people making decisions based on prospective gains or losses.

  • How does application of this theory persuade the public’s mitigation/preparedness/evacuation/ decisions? Addressing and leveraging these attitudes may be an effective way of communicating.

Even when the risk causes and numbers are identical, people care more about man-made than naturally occurring risks”- from the book Should We Risk It?

  • Focusing on communicating the dangers of levees and dams may be better than attempting to warn people about heavy rains and hurricanes. Give it a man-made slant.

Perceptions of Trustworthiness:

Different groups may need to focus on different methods of showing their trustworthiness and communicating effectively:

  • Industry should exhibit concern and care
  • Government should show commitment
  • Citizen groups should exhibit knowledge and expertise

Interacting with churches

  • Pair agency spokesperson with trusted church leader to deliver information

Tailor information to the most vulnerable groups

  • Helping “the most” does not necessarily mean helping the most vulnerable. (It usually means helping the white middle class)


Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk”. Econometrica 2. Vol. 47 (1979): 263-291.

Kammen, Daniel., and David Hassenzahl. Should we Risk it? Exploring Environmental, Health, and Technological Problem Solving. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, (1999.)

Mooney, Chris. The Republican War on Science. Basic Books, New York, NY. (2005).


4 responses to “Power to the People! Empowering the Public to Help Themselves

  • Dave Gomberg

    In SF we are screwed. All local FEMA money for CA was allocated by the states to the COUNTIES, and SF is a coterminus city/county. In its infinite wisdom it decided to allocate 100% of the largesse to the city’s plan A, the city does not have a plan B because surely plan A will work. As a consequence, efforts like AERO have no funding and will likely be abandoned.

    • Dave Gomberg

      That’s “state” not “states”. Sorry.

    • kalamityjenn

      Wow. That is a shame! I am not sure what role you play within the AERO project, but do you know if they applied for HMGP (404 mitigation) money from FEMA for that? Not sure if 404 is only for structural mitigation. Also, isn’t there like a “Pre-Disaster Mitigation” program as well? At any rate, the AERO project should try to get in good with SF county, and get a hold of some of that cash!

  • Himadri Maitra

    Disasters are not isolated or rare events, which break ‘normalcy’ for a while. It arises out of development failure and socio-economic imbalances manifested in our environment. Faulty growth model creates disasters. Risk is embedded in development processes. Living is risk, but civilization (thousands years of human development) reduces the risk. We habituate ourselves in living with risk. The risks in living are not noticeable as we are accustomed with those. We consider it risk when it is out of commonality. Risk of earning livelihood is a priority risk than risk of earthquake. The mother, who cannot provide food to his child regularly, cannot understand risk of disaster.

    Community is the first responder. In addition, they are the sufferer. If they do not recognize the ownership of any mitigation and preparedness project, then the community does not readily adapt those. Again, risks arise out of institutional vulnerability is the most critical risk, because it enhances other risks. These institutional risks mean political institute and governance.
    Empowerment empowers individual. Mainstreaming disaster management into development may be the solution. The practices of risk reduction processes should be imbibed into the local culture. Community is to be facilitated to prepare their own plan. Early warning signals should be meaningful to them. As such, focal (key) persons are to be located in the community who is to be properly trained.

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