“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
- Newspaper section on preparedness
- 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
- Project Impact, established in 1997, was an effective bottom-up approach to communication, using community-based participatory research.
- Creation of comprehensive hazard risk programs in elementary schools
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).