Hurricane Sandy is unusually strong, dubbed Frankenstorm as it grows larger than anything seen in recent memory. The unusual nature of the storm helps to draw extra attention from the media and probably the public, and might help get some people to take appropriate safety measures and evacuate where needed. But not everyone will heed safety warnings. When it comes to rare risks like this, experience teaches us the wrong lesson, leading some not to respond.
Common sense says that experience is the best teacher. Indeed, the lessons from experience are powerful, the more painful the stronger the lesson. If we face a risk frequently, and experience the painful consequences of bad decisions, we quickly learn and adapt to change our behavior. If we get burned every time we touch a hot pan, we quickly learn not to touch hot pans anymore, to use an oven mitt and be careful. The association of pain with hot pans is strong and lasting in our minds.
But some risks happen only rarely. If we only face a risk once in a lifetime, and if we repeatedly have near misses that we escape from unscathed, then experience teaches us the wrong lesson. Experience teaches us that a rare risk like this is not worth worrying about, that everything will be okay.
It’s happened before. Most of us don’t repeatedly experience large storms like major hurricanes. They rarely impact a specific location. When Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans in 2005, it had been decades since Hurricane Betsy had inundated New Orleans in 1965. For years the risk of flooding in New Orleans was widely discussed every time a storm headed in that direction, but for years the storms missed and nothing happened. A year before Katrina, Hurricane Ivan had been on a direct course forNew Orleansand an evacuation attempted, with poor results. The storm missedNew Orleans, and those who had evacuated learned that they wasted their time while those who did not evacuate had this decision reinforced. Experience taught them that large storms like this were not really a threat.
Researchers looking at evacuation responses for Katrina found that even people who had received the warnings did not always evacuate because of what’s called a normalcy bias. After so many normal days go by, people tend to keep thinking that everything is normal unless they can see a crisis coming with their own eyes. And by that time it might be too late.
There are some solutions for our reliance on experience. When people see their friends and neighbors preparing for a storm, or evacuating, they tend to do the same. We are social creatures, so people become much more motivated to undertake storm preparation, earthquake preparation, or other responses to rare risks if they are seen as the social norm. And dense media coverage, as is occurring right now, can move many in the right direction.
Our failure to respond to rare risks is not limited to hurricanes. We underestimate rare risks we’ve never experienced in many ways, including everything from earthquakes to financial collapses and oil well blowouts. We have a hard time envisioning risks like these that we’ve never seen, leading us to revert back to the common default perspective that nothing bad ever happens to us. This belief based on the experience of countless days before is usually correct. But when the day finally comes when the rare risk comes to pass, this belief leaves us vulnerable, hitting us in our blind spot.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, exploring the twisted ways we see the risks of the world all around us. He’s also the author of “Gifts from the Train Station”, telling the inspirational stories of people who’ve overcome hard times to do great work for others, and “75 Green Businesses”, revealing the many ways people from all backgrounds can make money and make a difference.