Disaster Psychology

Emily Holbrook


October 1, 2010

Costly natural disasters have destroyed cities, towns and villages across the continent and beyond throughout 2010. And though Mother Nature will never cease unleashing her random fury, it seems that human psychology prevents society from appreciating these enormous disaster risks, and worse, keeps us from properly preparing. At least that's what a new study from FM Global is asserting. In "Flirting with Natural Disasters," the insurance giant claims that when a natural disaster strikes and leaves a company or individual unharmed, "the thinking is that the worst has passed, although the risk of a more severe event has not changed."

The study places an emphasis on humans' great ability to deny. Company executives consistently feel they are out of harm's way, even as waters rise and buildings crumble around them. "People are creatures of habit," said Michael Topf of Topf Initiatives, a company involved in the research of safety, health and environmental training. "The more time that slips by without a predicted disaster, the greater a person's deniability."

Even if a disaster does strike, but does little or no damage to a person's home or business, a feeling of invincibility can follow. An example of this is post-Katrina New Orleans. Unbelievably, the city remains ill-prepared to withstand another hurricane. New building codes require that some houses be built only three feet off the ground, even though Hurricane Katrina flooded up to 20 feet in some areas.

This lack of a realistic approach to future disasters is evidenced in the boardroom, too. Though directors and senior officers should expect the worst, they rarely do. To change this way of thinking, the report puts forth several suggestions, such as altering the current method of describing the risk of a disaster. The traditional model defines disaster risk as a 1-in-100-year occurrence (or some other unrealistic ratio). Another suggestion is to present the experiences of individuals who have suffered and survived a disaster, as people are more likely to be motivated by stories of first-hand accounts than by statistics. The objective of the study was to prompt business leaders, policymakers and regulatory bodies to become more aware of the psychological factors that affect business decision-making, and to take action now to prepare for the inevitable, thus, reducing the human and business toll.

As Ruud Bosman, vice chairman of FM Global states, if more organizations considered the impact of psychological behaviors on their disaster risk preparedness, "the world would be a much safer place."
Emily Holbrook is the founder of Red Label Writing, LLC, a writing, editing and content strategy firm catering to insurance and risk management businesses and publications, and a former editor of Risk Management.