Disaster Near-Misses Can Produce Sense of Security, According to New Study
March 18, 2011
Robin Dillon-Merrill and Catherine Tinsley Co-Author the Research Featured in the Journal Risk Analysis
Past random good fortune can lull a person into a sense of security when it comes to buying flood insurance or deciding whether to evacuate from a hurricane, according to new research by Robin Dillon-Merrill and Catherine Tinsley, associate professors at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
Studies of both professional risk experts and the general public showed people who had experienced a “near-miss” event related to flooding or a potential hurricane, instead of taking extra precautions when faced with possible future disasters, actually behave less protectively.
“Why Near-Miss Events Can Decrease an Individual’s Protective Response to Hurricanes” appears in the March issue of the journal Risk Analysis published by the Society for Risk Analysis. Matthew Cronin of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., also co-authored the piece, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events.
“Our research shows how people who have experienced a similar situation but escape damage because of chance will make decisions consistent with a perception that the situation is less risky than those without the past experience,” Dillon-Merrill said.
Examples of natural environment near-misses cited in the article included: a random tree location pattern saving one’s house from a mud slide, shifting weather conditions saving a home from a wildfire, or an impending hurricane failing to produce the winds predicted or the track turns at the last moment, missing a major metropolitan area along the coast. Man-made disasters cited included terrorist events: for example, by chance, a bomb fails to go off quickly enough, allowing time for nearby individuals to intervene and disrupt the attack.
The research showed people having experienced a near-miss event perceived a lower amount of risk, despite being presented with information suggesting a high-risk situation. In the first part of the study, researchers compared participants’ choices about purchasing flood insurance after some had experienced a near-miss with flood damage, while others had not. Both participants from the general public and experts in the fields of risk analysis and natural disasters who had experienced a near-miss chose less insurance than people who had not experienced a near-miss.
In the second part of the study, participants drawn from the same general public/risk analyst pools were queried about whether to evacuate from a hurricane. The same findings emerged: if they previously had escaped disaster by chance, they were less likely to be willing to evacuate when faced with potential hurricane weather.
“Although the chance-dependent nature of near-misses may be acknowledged, these good outcomes may come to be seen as more of a sure thing for those who have experienced a near miss,” according to Dillon-Merrill.
The findings have implications for how people respond to, and prepare for, natural disasters and may be of interest to emergency responders, insurers, decision-analysts, and communications experts.
“Those who educate the public about natural disasters need to realize that the same objective facts about the costs and statistically calculated risk of an impending hazard will be interpreted differently by people based on their own prior experience,” according to the authors.
About Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business
Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business is a premier business school located at the center of world politics and business in Washington, D.C. Some 1,400 undergraduates, 1,000 MBA students, and 500 participants in executive education programs study business with an intensive focus on leadership and a global perspective. Founded in 1957, the business school today resides in the new Rafik B. Hariri Building, a state-of-the-art facility that blends the tradition of Georgetown University with forward-thinking functionality. For more information about Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, visit http://msb.georgetown.edu.