Why Don’t People Prepare For Natural Disasters?

If you live in a part of the country known for a certain type of natural disaster, like hurricanes or earthquakes, it stands to reason that you would make preparations for it. Things like having an emergency plan, reinforcing your home and making sure you have adequate insurance for the event.

Yet, time after time, we see news stories of people who were caught unawares by the approach of a natural disaster. These events range in scope from scrambling to get provisions at the last minute and emptying the shelves of grocery and hardware stores, to tragically losing a home and other possessions in a total disaster.

So, if people live in zones where they know there is a reasonable probability of a natural diaster, what would cause them to ignore preparations for that disaster until it’s too late?

A new book written by two directors from The Wharton School’s risk management division sheds some major light on the psychological processes that drive underpreparedness scenarios. Called “The Ostrich Paradox“, it examines in detail how disaster planning goes wrong — and how to do it the right way.

The authors identify six specific biases that cause people to not properly prepare for natural disasters:

  • Inertia: The ongoing feeling that you don’t need to protect yourself just quite yet.
  • Myopia: The irrational feeling that since things are fine now and have been fine for as long as you’ve been in the area, they’ll continue to always be fine.
  • Herding: Looking to others to tell you what to do to prepare for a disaster, and not doing it if you do not see an authority telling you to.
  • Optimism: While this is normally a positive trait, in the event of a disaster it can make you downplay the risks and thus fail to take adequate measures to protect yourself.
  • Amnesia: No matter how badly natural disasters damage an area, people are quick to forget these events and the lessons that should have been learned from them.
  • Simplification: A lack of awareness of the full extent of damage that a natural disaster can cause, and the scenarios that a family will be in if they’re caught in one (i.e. how they are going to get out of the area if the roads are shut down).

It’s tough to identify and admit to mental bias, but it’s very important to try to do so for the sake of protecting your property and family. The authors of the book advise people to draw up firm rules about how to handle a disaster long before there is any risk, keeping in mind that any or all of these biases could be influencing you once the first warnings of the disaster come in. Keep the rules in writing so there’s no confusion, and commit to following them to the letter. It’s also always a good idea to review your insurance policies and verify that you are adequately covered for the type of disasters that are common in your area, especially if you’ve done renovations or additions to your home recently.