Free image via Pixabay
Source: Free image via Pixabay

Disasters are significant events (either natural or man-made) that cause a lot of damage and loss of life. They include events like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and explosions.  Although disasters are common (there are about 650 reported disasters a year), there is little research on how people deal psychologically with disasters they experience.

That is why a paper by Jayson Jia, Jianmin Jia, Christopher Hsee and Baba Shiv in the January, 2017 issue of Psychological Science is so interesting.  These researchers took advantage of a natural disaster—an earthquake in the Sichuan province of China in April, 2013. 

The researchers obtained cell phone records from a provider that served about 10% of the population of that region of China (a little over 150,000 people). From these records, the researchers could explore the amount of communication that people did with others as well as their use of a variety of apps. Because smart phones also contain information about where people were, the researchers could map cell phone usage to people’s location during the earthquake.

You might think that the stronger the earthquake, the less likely people would be to use apps. They might call a few family members and perhaps search for information about the quake. In fact, people who were in the region of highest intensity used apps of all types in the first 4 weeks after the earthquake than those in regions of the lowest intensity. The only exception is that in the first week after the earthquake, people in the most heavily damaged regions had some limitations in cell service that decreased their app usage. After the cell service was restored in those regions, though, they exhibited the highest rate of app usage.

Interestingly, people used not just communication apps and functional apps (like apps for news sources), but also hedonic apps like games and music programs that provide pleasurable experiences. Usage of these hedonic apps was highest in the regions most strongly affected by the quake.

The researchers were interested in understanding how app usage affected people’s psychological recovery from the earthquake. They contacted 2,000 people from the original group whose phone records they analyzed about a week after the earthquake. Over 800 of them agreed to participate in a brief survey. There were two important questions that they asked. People were asked to rate how much threat they experienced at the time of the earthquake roughly a week before. They also rated how much threat they were experiencing at that moment.

Two interesting findings emerged from these data. First, the more that people used communication apps, the more threat they felt. Second, the more pleasure apps people used, the less threat they felt.

With correlations like this, it is hard to know what causes what. It is plausible, for example, that when people feel more threatened, they reach out to friends and loved ones, and so they use communication apps and that when they don’t feel threatened, they use apps for enjoyment.

The authors did several additional analyses to try to look at the causal direction. One interesting thing they did was to look at each participant’s initial experience of threat, and then explore whether their usage of communication and pleasure apps went up or down. For both types of apps, the average initial level of threat experienced by people was about the same regardless of whether they later increased or decreased their usage of communication and pleasure apps.

The authors collected an additional sample two years after the earthquake when people were preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the event. The participants were asked to look back on the amount of threat they experienced after the event. A similar pattern of relationship between app use and threat was obtained from this sample.

These data suggest that smart phones may be an important tool for helping people to recover from disasters. Disasters are (almost by definition) unexpected events that cause a tear in people’s life story. Engaging with music and games can be a wonderful way for people to steady themselves mentally and help them to deal with the initial shock of what happened. Engaging with apps can also be a great way to stop the negative cycle of thoughts that may enhance people’s fear after a frightening event.


Jia, J.S., Jia, J., Hsee, C.K., Shiv, B. (2017). The role of hedonic behavior in reducing perceived risk: Evidence from postearthquake mobile-app data. Psychological Science, 28(1), 23-35.

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