Cultural Barriers to Earthquake Preparedness

Helene Joffe


June 1, 2012

[caption id="attachment_9134" align="alignleft" width="205"] (AP photo/Kyodo News)[/caption]

Most people living in seismic zones the world over do little to prepare themselves for earthquakes. This may seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, what can one do in the face of such a massively destructive force? But there is plenty that can be done. Bearing in mind that earthquake disaster research takes for granted that "earthquakes do not kill people, buildings do," there are at least 19 specific things a person can do to improve their chances of survival when a quake strikes. They range from retrofitting one's home to ensuring that heavy objects are securely fixed. Why are such measures -- some cost-free and easy to carry out -- not taken?

At the University College London's EPICentre, my colleagues and I conducted a study to examine the issue. We interviewed North American, Japanese and Turkish people living in highly seismic coastal regions (Seattle, Osaka and Izmir, respectively) that have not been directly affected by earthquakes in recent years. The responses were intriguing.

Among the U.S. sample, we found that, on average, around half of the potential safety measures were practiced. In Japan and Turkey, however, people only implemented around one-third of the measures. In exploring these findings, we discovered some clues as to what may be driving these low levels of uptake, particularly in Japan and Turkey.

In light of the low number of protective measures adopted in all three cultures, it might come as a surprise that there was very high awareness of how to prepare oneself for earthquakes. When asked to choose and rank the five hazards they deemed most personally threatening among 20 human-made, natural, health and societal hazards, earthquakes were in the top five in all three locations. Japanese people even ranked earthquakes as the most personally threatening of all hazards despite the fact that the study was conducted before the tragic 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Earthquakes ranked third in Turkey and fifth in the United States. Among all those interviewed, it is safe to say that the awareness was generally high regarding both the danger posed to their region by earthquakes and steps that could be taken to prepare.

Why, then, do so few people in all three cultures make efforts to mitigate the damage that earthquakes may wreak? Our research suggested that the clue may lie in peoples' sense of agency and control in relation to earthquakes, as well as in their emotional and moral responses. These can be framed as three barriers to preparation for earthquakes: fatalism, anxiety and distrust of authorities.

1st  Barrier to Earthquake Preparedness: FATALISM

Participants in all three regions saw themselves and the groups to which they belonged as, in some way, helpless. This signified a degree of fatalism across all regions studied. The perceived cause of the earthquake differed across the cultures. For the U.S. and Japanese participants, earthquakes and their consequences were acts of nature: phenomena outside the domain of human intervention, whose unpredictable force made their occurrence unavoidable and uncontrollable.

"There's really no defense," responded a 61-year-old American male. "You can't build something sturdy enough to mess with Mother Nature. We're just little human specks on this Earth...We're kind of kidding ourselves if we think we can build stuff to completely survive in the worst-case event."

A 44-year-old Japanese male echoed this sentiment. "The movement of the Earth's crust cannot be prevented by humans," he said. "It is impossible...I've got the impression that nothing can be done."

A sense of fatalism was also strongly pervasive in the Turkish participants. Though for them, the earthquake stemmed not so much from nature as from divine provenance. "There is nothing we can do," said a 61-year-old Turkish male. "We say it came from Allah."

This sense of powerlessness in the face of nature is not absolute, however. While respondents often pointed to the uncontrollable nature of earthquakes, many indicated that humans could mitigate their effects. This view was especially prevalent in the United States. "I think I have absolutely no control about when an earthquake is happening," said a 34-year-old American female. "[But] I think I have control as to my reaction to an earthquake in terms of my preparation, my follow through, my knowledge of what to do."

"We can do something about it, although we cannot stop it from happening," said a Japanese male, who suggested that communities can "construct housing with non-collapsing techniques or arrange city planning to prevent the spread of fire. By doing so, we can reduce the extent of the damage, after the disaster happens. I think that we can also apply the same measures against tsunami."

These ideas about fate and destiny were also interwoven with assertions of human agency and control from Turkish respondents. "This is what Allah has written for us," said a 57-year-old Turkish female. "It is going to happen, but we don't know when it will happen. We know that we have to be prepared and ready all the time...One shouldn't see an earthquake as such a fearsome, big disaster. One needs to get used to this at some point and live with this, taking precautions."

2nd Barrier to Earthquake Preparedness: ANXIETY

If people are aware of the actions they can take, why don't they take them? Emotional orientation to earthquakes appears to shape the lack of preparation. Negative emotion may cause paralysis, while positive emotion may allow feelings of control and agency to endure.

The culture that felt the most anxiety, panic, pain and other negative emotions related to earthquakes was Turkey. People there prepared the least. The culture that felt the most positive emotions was the United States. People there adjusted the most. Japan, in both respects, landed somewhere in between.

The main emotional response to earthquakes in all three cultures was anxiety and fear. For the North Americans, these emotions were held in relation to the massive disruption to infrastructure that an earthquake had the potential to produce. However, a number of other emotions diluted extreme anxiety in the U.S. sample.

First, there were references to awe, fascination and exhilaration in relation to witnessing an earthquake. "If the Earth really wanted to take you down, I mean, it can in a second," said one 40-year-old American male. "And so that's kind of the amazement and the surrealness of everything."

The psychological concept of "distancing" was also evident in the majority of North Americans who associate earthquakes with places geographically removed from Seattle. They separate earthquake risk from themselves and their homes. An earthquake was seen by many as a worse problem in places like California and Asia. "I don't feel so threatened by it," said a 45-year-old American female. "I mean, I don't live on the San Andreas Fault. I live in Seattle!"

Others state that they need to find a way of distancing themselves in order to go on with their daily lives. "We all live in places where there are different kinds of risk, and I think the only way you can survive is to say 'OK, it's not going to happen to me,'" said a 61-year-old American male. He added that "you really can't live under that kind of fear all the time."

Similarly, the dominant emotional component of Japanese associations with earthquakes was concern, worry, anxiety and fear. The main object of fear was not concern for infrastructure collapse, however; it was for personal safety and the well being of others in the event of collapsing structures. This fear was compounded by reference to the force of shaking, the noises of the earthquake and the pervasive sense of having everyday reality violently re-arranged into a threatening form.

The majority of Japanese participants also expressed a sense that their past experience with an earthquake or similar disaster had prompted a "reality shift." Their views on earthquakes changed from a lack of concern to a realization that earthquakes represent a hazard that could touch Osaka, their families and themselves. If such a disaster could happen in Kobe, why not in Osaka?

However, a countervailing discourse, in which earthquakes and other hazards were seen as more prevalent elsewhere was also found. This distancing was achieved by contrasting Osaka with other areas -- in Japan and throughout Asia -- thought to be at greater risk.

In both Japan and the United States, people distance themselves from the threat by playing up their own technological supremacy. "I'm sorry, this may not be a nice way to describe [it]," said one Japanese male, "but in a well-developed place, there are not many dead people." He added that in "Southeast Asia, and less developed countries, people there are quite defenseless against the disaster."

By contrast, the Turks were not prone to distancing. Experiences with disastrous earthquakes in other parts of Turkey had created a strong emotional response. This was associated first and foremost with death.

"We see, we watch," said a 46-year-old Turkish male. "[Someone] comes up on TV and says, 'My house collapsed in the earthquake -- all my money is gone, my workplace is gone, my children died, my spouse died.' We haven't lived that but assume that we might live it one day."

More than those in Japan and the United States, Turkish respondents expressed a sense that they would be the targets of serious earthquakes. The fascinating thing is that, despite this, they prepare the least.

3rd Barrier to Earthquake Preparedness: DISTRUST OF A CORRUPT SYSTEM

There was a cluster of morally charged emotions strongly present in the Turkish data that was nearly absent in the U.S. and Japanese data. It was constituted by aspersions of corruption and incompetence towards politicians, civil servants, planning regulators and the construction industry. This was accompanied by a lowering of collective self-esteem. Two-thirds of Turkish participants expressed feelings of what can be termed a "demise of identity" related to the perceived immoral or incompetent state of Turkish society.

"Our politicians should spot what the real needs of the people are...instead of making and selling pasteurized eggs out of rotten ones, and making pretty pennies out of dead donkeys," said a 56-year-old Turkish female.

This demise of identity influenced people's representations of risk because corruption, greed and selfishness were seen to produce vulnerable cities and buildings. Just under half of the participants directed blame for this state of affairs towards government and state institutions. A similar number blamed economic and business elites.

"I may also lose my family [during an earthquake] because of the fraud and irresponsibility of the ones in power," said a 29-year-old Turkish female. "But how do they sleep at night with a comfortable conscience?"

Feelings of distrust were frequently coupled with assessments of the vulnerability of the built environment. "Everyone is worried, but they are living even in the buildings that they know not to be solid," said one Turkish female. "They continue living in them, because there is no other solution. What is presented as a solution to them is just utter nonsense."

Anger, too, was associated with the poor state of the built environment and directed at the construction industry as well as the state that regulates it. Another Turkish female described a building she saw fail during an earthquake. "Right in front of your eyes, the building had cracked into two for good," she said. She was highly disturbed by the post-disaster response. "They plastered and painted it up instead of repairing that."

The frequency with which respondents compared Turkey to other places was not quantitatively different from either the Japanese or U.S. data. However, the content and psychological consequences of the Turkish comparisons were distinct. While Japanese and U.S. respondents used place comparisons as a means of positioning their homes as safe relative to other places, Turkish people used them to point to their heightened risk relative to other places.

"Why is this country going like this? Why?" asked a 57-year-old Turkish female. "We are in a country, which is always exploited, always used, so vulgarly, like a checker piece at people's fingertips." She added that she has "also seen Europe" where people live "perfectly compared to my own country," which "in the security sense, in every sense, it is so average, so insufficient."

Thus, uncovering the emotional dynamics of cultural responses to earthquakes enhances understanding of why people who live in areas of high seismic risk do not act to reduce their risk: mediating emotional variables such as feelings of helplessness, anxiety, demise of identity and distrust may function as barriers to action.

Cultural Differences

Our findings at University College London corroborate earlier data that has found that those in the United States make more adjustments than the Japanese do. Other researchers have attributed this to the nation's respective individualist versus collectivist cultural orientations. U.S. studies indicate a shift over time in the public's ascriptions of responsibility for earthquake protection from the state to the household level. In contrast, the Japanese cultural and political emphasis on collectivism and state action is reflected in greater responsibility attributed to the state on the part of Japanese people.

Perhaps cultural processes that direct responsibility for earthquake protection away from oneself and towards other agents might undermine individual preparation in both Japan and Turkey. It gets left to government.

Ultimately, a combination of high fatalism, high anxiety and high distrust is strongly linked with a lack of action to mitigate damage. In terms of a message that might be conveyed in earthquake prone zones, "of course Mother Nature/God is not stoppable but there are ways of reducing damage and preventing death." Some just choose to pursue them more often than others.
Dr. Helene Joffe is a reader in psychology, and University College London and social science lead on EPICentre, UCL's interdisciplinary center for the study of earthquakes.