Hurricanes and Uncertainty: The real reasons why people stay rather than evacuate

A few days ago, Hurricane Florence roared into the Carolinas causing flooding, mayhem and some misunderstandings about the psychology of evacuations. As a former psychology professor myself, and one who has lived on the Carolina coast for more than thirty years, and who has had evacuated – and not evacuated — from many storms, I was intrigued to read a Fox News Opinion by Michigan professor Daryl Van Tongeren. While acknowledging that there are many factors involved in a decision not to evacuate, Van Tongeren mentions Terror Management Theory; that we minimize the prospect of death by showing we’re not afraid of danger, as a reason why people choose to stay rather than leave.

I suspect that there are a few who show this bravado, but I seriously doubt that Terror Management is the reason why the vast majority of people stay in the projected path of a storm. In my experience there are two main reasons why people stay and they reflect today’s main concerns: money and stress. And if there’s a psychological mechanism involved, it’s confirmation bias.

The fact is that we all want control over our lives – not just death. And the reality is we don’t have it. In fact, an oncoming hurricane is a wonderful metaphor for life itself; full of uncertainty and potential danger.

So you’re told that there’s a dangerous storm headed your way. Evacuation orders are issued. Businesses close and now you’ve lost a week’s income, if not more. You also have to leave town and take your animals too, which could be a problem if you have something more than a cat and a dog, like a horse, goat or chickens. Many people stay to protect their animals should danger arise.

If you do evacuate, you have to find a place to stay, which in a big storm that threatens more than one state, could be at least a couple of hundred miles away. If you’re going, you’ll probably be gone for at least three days, if not more, resulting in a bill of several hundred dollars and even more if you’re lucky to have found a pet friendly hotel.

There’s also a good chance that you’ll be stuck in traffic for hours. In a storm that threatened much of the southeast coast a few years ago, there was traffic gridlock for hours on some interstates, where restaurants ran out of food and toilets no longer worked, compounding the misery – and stress — for thousands of evacuees. Moreover, once you have left town, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get back in while an evacuation order is still in effect, resulting in more frustration and unnecessary expense.

So, evacuation could cost as much as several hundred dollars, which many people don’t have and subject them to extreme stress. And a storm impact in your area is just a possibility. What would you do?

For experienced storm watchers, the typical thought process is to weigh the odds. If a big storm is coming right at you, you’ll probably leave, if you can afford it. We did that for Hurricane Hugo, the massive storm that was headed straight for us, when we left very early in the morning. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Columbia, the storm had shifted and was headed north towards Charleston. The storm actually crashed through Columbia late at night, knocking out the power. We left the next day, being fortunate enough to find an open gas station, and arrived home to find barely a downed tree limb. Some wiser friends decided, accurately, that Columbia was too near the storm and opted for the safer confines of Charlotte, North Carolina. Except they were trapped there for a week as the city saw unprecedented flooding.

If there’s some doubt, you will wait. Typically, mandatory evacuation orders are given well in advance of a storm’s arrival, typically 72-96 hours in advance. So, the experienced have learned to wait and see. Let the first evacuees leave. You still have at least another 48 hours to decide what to do, and then you can base your decision on more updated, and more accurate, forecasting.

We have done that on four occasions: twice we left and twice we stayed. The twice we stayed were good decisions as they were no storm impacts at all in our area. One time we left, we learned soon after, that the storm wasn’t going to hit us but we couldn’t get back and had to continue on an unnecessary evacuation. The other time, there was some minor flooding but many neighbors stayed and spent a couple of days cleaning out their garages that had typically received two feet of water; houses in our area are actually built up 15 feet, so there was no risk of flooding to the actual house.

We know from cognitive neuroscience that having made a decision, we will seek evidence that it is the right one and ignore evidence against it – so-called confirmation bias. This goes for life in general. And when life is so uncertain, the fact is we don’t know until events unfold. Then our hindsight bias takes effect and we can once again blame others for a poor decision, or congratulate ourselves on a good one.

It’s not bravado that determines whether to evacuate from a storm or not, it’s simple practicalities and trying to determine the probabilities and what they mean. And humans aren’t very good at that.

We want certainty when there is none.

Cognitive Bias and Journalism

Human beings aren’t rational. As if we didn’t really know that already, the recent cognitive neuroscience research shows that we are story-tellers driven by emotional comfort not truth seekers. That surely has always been the case, but what seems dangerously different in the digital era is that for some, rationality and truth don’t even matter. And because for the most part we are not rational doesn’t mean that reason and truth should be sacrificed on the altars of narcissism and opinion.

Ever since the understanding of the mind and human behavior gained pace in the twentieth century, it has been used to manipulate and influence, a movement which was well documented in the BBC documentary, the Century of the Self (still available on Youtube) which showed how Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays made a fortune out of turning the notions of the mind in to ‘Public Relations’ and ‘Propaganda.’

A communication, specifically one designed to inform or influence, can be simply be reduced to these elements

Evidence are facts derived by independent enquiry and qualified by the factors that influence them.

Beliefs and opinions. These are not facts. They are personal and can’t be proven, and only have relevance to the person who has them and the people who share them.

Emotions, like being offended, are neither evidence nor an argument.

Writing a news story is problematic if you want it to be even-handed. Even if there’s an appeal to some evidence there are key questions: What is the context? How are you approaching the gathering of evidence? Are you just selecting your stories to conform to your own biases, whether you know them or not?

Even the most objective writer, especially on a short deadline, can’t possibly cover every angle or perspective, even on a long deadline.

You can slant a communication any way you want. And, as we have become more aware of how the mind works, that is what we all do. (see Advertizing).

Some , like the Skeptics, argued that the search for truth is an infinite regress, that the more you dig the more you have to explore. Others like the Stoics, argue that at some point one has enough evidence so that the facts have some practical usefulness.

So, how do we deal with this human imperfection?

Well, surely the answer is not to exaggerate the problem by not engaging in reasoned discourse.

Dismissing everything as fake news with an emotional response is actually worse than the fake news you’re complaining about it.

The answer is to provide an alternative view based on evidence, not belief, emotional convenience, or opinion. However, this is not how inconvenient news is handled. Rather, it is typically blasted with reality show emotionalism.

In fact, for me, an emotional response without an appeal to further evidence is the last resort for someone with a bankrupt argument. Their only defense is no defense – just an outburst designed to deflect, or even better abort, the discussion. It’s like hatefully marching against hate.

At one point, language was a key to evolution. Now, it might turn out to be the reason for our devolution.

The State of the State

I’m thinking of starting a new business. My idea is to set up a board equally divided by members of two different philosophies. The board members know that they are almost certainly going to be on the board for several years and will be paid very well. There also will be no barriers to them working for other organizations or receiving input and money from any sources.

What do you think?

Personally, I think this is no way to run a lemonade stand let alone a business, let alone a state, let alone a country. The presumed checks and balances of such a system lead to a lot of checks for the incumbents and keep the rest of us off balance. The currency becomes wheeling and dealing, quid pro quo, with relatively minor consideration of the important issues at hand. The political social network and bargaining mindset communication is a bit like middle school but with more at stake.

How is this ever going to be resolved?

Term limits? Sure term limits would help. They would be a good start. However, as a professional politician, for example you could have two terms in the state Assembly then two terms in the State Senate, then two terms in the US House and then the US Senate. Assuming a limit of two terms of 4 years, that’s 32 years right there!

Moreover, term limits would ideally need to be matched with campaign spending limits. If not, Joe Billionaire could have his guy serve for two terms, then sponsor someone else to run for the next two terms and so on, ad infinitum.

As someone who sees the serious flaws in binary thinking, I’d like to see the demise of the two party system. It simplifies many complex national issues to absurdity and keeps people stuck in an ideological mindset that is not helpful. Still, I don’t see that demise happening soon.

I have often mused about winning the lottery and then setting up a “shadow” Senate with a group that represented the population as a whole, with three people from each state selected based on their willingness to be open-minded and accept a modest salary without perks for serving their country. I suspect that such a body would resolve many complex national issues in a considerably shorter time and with more focus than the elected government. I guess that they would work much more efficiently as a team, with less rancor. They might even make America great again.

In the midst of my despair about the way this country is run and where it is headed, I met William Herlong, a Republican candidate running for the critical post of Attorney General in South Carolina. He is competing against the Republican Alan Wilson, the incumbent, in an election on June

Mr. Herlong, an extremely accomplished and experienced lawyer, doesn’t need the money, nor does he want a political career. His motivation stems entirely from his desire to tackle what he sees as major corruption in SC politics; corruption that is apparently going unchecked in Columbia.

William Herlong believes in term limits and if elected will limit himself to two terms. That will help him focus on the job at hand, rather than worrying about a political career. As Herlong himself says, as soon as you are intent on establishing a political career your current political office is already compromised, sacrificed on the altar of personal gain and career longevity.

In Herlong, I see an antidote to the development and growth of the swamp. Don’t elect career politicians. Elect people who are pursuing the job for the right reasons; the service of the people, not their own egos. Experience as an elected official is not a positive characteristic in my view.

The Attorney General position is very powerful, perhaps even more powerful than the Governor’s role. The AG is the enforcer and without an efficient and moral enforcer, the swamp just gets bigger, no matter how popular the Governor may be.

Now I understand the culture in which we live. It’s egocentric and a detriment to collaboration, open-mindedness and wisdom. You only have to look at election campaigns where candidates slander and abuse each other, to see how low we have sunk. (By the way, did you know that primates, also have their own ‘elections’ to determine the alpha male? They team up and effectively vote. There’s one difference between these primate elections and ours: theirs are more civilized.)

So as much as, or even more, than term limits and campaign spending caps, we need honest and talented people with no political aspirations to step in and do the job for the right reasons, no strings attached. We don’t need manipulative people, conspiring with others, bartering to get their way. We simply need more honest people like William Herlong. That’s the way to run a state, an organization, a lemonade stand, and yes, even a country.

 

 

On Social Media and Privacy

I’m always wary of high tech fads

And never buy from Facebook ads

 I know this media’s not for friends

But mostly for commercial ends

 

So I’ve ensured that what you see

Does not reflect what’s truly me

 My profile says I’m a la carte

But I always shop at Wal Mart

 

I’m in Moscow working on Ux?*

No, having coffee at Starbucks

 Was that me tasered by a cop?

No, just the work of photoshop

 

My page says I’m quiet and shy

But perhaps I work for the FBI?

 I did a test right on the screen

And was told I’m England’s Queen

 

If you can’t respect my privacy

I’ll indulge in my piracy

 Advertising’s mostly illusion

So I’ll keep up with my delusion

 

Data given marketing Joes

Thus belong to alter egos

 So guys, you can keep my data

As for me, I’ll see you later

 

*UX User experience (UXdesign involves creating products that maximize the user’s experience  

Copyright 2018 Howard Rankin

BBC Christens New NBA Team

In a recent post I aired my disappointment about a BBC story that demonstrated irresponsible reporting about the value of achieving 10000 steps in a day. And my disappointment continued in the news outlet today, February 28, with another less serious gaffe about American sports.

In a story about the Florida shootings, the piece mentioned that the National Basketball Association Miami Heat player, Dwayne Wade was moved by the fact that one of the victims was buried wearing a shirt with Wade’s name on the back. The story goes…

“The day before the Miami Heat player was to play against the Philadelphia 69ers, Wade decided to dedicate the rest of his season to that student, Joaquin Oliver.”

The piece continues to mention the fact that Wade and his teammates “went on to beat the 69ers on Tuesday evening..”

(That was in the piece still available online at the time of my writing this: 8:30am ET on 2/28/2018)

I did check and to the best of my knowledge Philadelphia’s NBA team is still called the 76ers, after a certain important date in American history.

Perhaps the writer got confused between the NFL’s San Francisco  49ers and the Philadelphia 76ers but if so perhaps he or she should have split the difference and called them the ‘62 and a half ers.’ Or alternatively, they were confusing the important dates in American history and thought the city of Brotherly Love and home of the Liberty Bell were named after the critical events of 1769 when John Harris of Boston, Mass, built the first spinet piano.

Doesn’t anyone edit these pieces? It may not be quite the status of fake news but it doesn’t inspire confidence. Come on BBC!

Meanwhile, I still follow the BBC and their sports coverage. I’m looking forward to the weekend when my team, Tottenham United, play the Huddersfield Rangers.

BBC 10,000 Steps Headline Is Misleading, Disappointing and Potentially Dangerous

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In a January 31st BBC health story, Dr. Mark Mosley wrote, “Forget about 10,000 steps.” It’s unclear who actually said that. Was it Professor Rob Copeland from Sheffield Hallam University whom Mosley visited while Copeland conducted a “study” on four people? In any event, the gist of the story was that doing more vigorous activity for 10 minutes, three times a day was a better way to improve fitness than doing 10000 steps.

Culture and society are sinking into a binary brain morass. Everywhere you look, there is a dangerous and idiotic trend of seeing everything as an either/or proposition even where common sense let alone logic dictates otherwise. This is especially true of the media, who need to sensationalize everything to attract more eyeballs, and more sales. It’s one of the reasons I typically turn to the BBC for my news. As one who grew up in England I might be biased, but I am usually more trusting of the BBC than any other news source.

This story is a microcosm of the downgrading of critical thinking and serious analysis that is crippling society. Someone suggests, that doing more vigorous activity is better for your health. Duh! That’s a real surprise. It might have an advantage over 10000 steps for developing cardiovascular fitness BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THAT TRYING TO ACHIEVE 10000 STEPS IN A DAY SHOULD BE SCRAPPED. There are still advantages to reaching that level of activity, especially as so many people lead very sedentary lifestyles. However, here we have a headline that tells people to “forget” about doing a healthy activity, which surely has no ill-effects. Now, there will be many who will see this story, or even just the headline, and believe that the 10000 steps idea has been discredited and is no longer a useful goal. I mean who has got time for some critical thinking? And the advice came from…well, it’s unclear but Dr. Mosely seemed to support the idea.

Perhaps the defense to this is something like, “I couldn’t get that complexity into a few hundred words.” I say it’s better to try than give some misleading and potentially dangerous advice. As a writer, I could easily see how you could construct a more helpful and TRUTHFUL story. The headline could read, “How Helpful is the 10000 Steps Goal?” Such a story would allow some discussion of the value of including more vigorous activity in the 10000 steps, and the advantages and limitations of the advice.

For me, wisdom is about escaping the restrictions of binary brain thinking and recognizing the full context as well as acknowledging what you don’t know. For example, how many people, like me, consciously or otherwise, use their 10000 step goal to actually get some vigorous activity into their day? Even if 3  ten minute bursts of vigorous activity are better than 10000 steps a day for building cardiovascular fitness it doesn’t mean that 10000 steps should be “forgotten.”

As you can tell, I was disappointed by the headline and the story. Does BBC now stand for Binary Brain Cognition?

What Is Wrong With The World? Automatic Weapons, Automatic Assumptions and Tired Cliches

“I maintain then that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” — G.K. Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World?

 More than a hundred years ago Chesterton identified indeed what is wrong with the world, and continues to be wrong.

The problem is that even if we got so far as to have that discussion today, morality and rationality would be crushed by a reality show emotionalism. Narcissists parading as thought leaders would spin the narrative using cognitive bias and lethal marketing tricks. The fact is that humans have always been story-tellers not truth-seekers. We run on confirmation bias, not rationality. “Seek and ye shall find”: not the truth, but support for whatever position it is most convenient, personally consistent and thus emotionally comfortable.

And so to another mass shooting.

“Guns don’t kill, people do.”

Seriously?? I thought guns were made to kill people.

Suppose a criminal is cornered by the police. In that situation he has a knife in his pocket. What does he do? Probably surrender when surrounded by armed police.

In another situation he has an automatic weapon in his hand. Will that influence his decision? It almost certainly would. The notion that the availability of a gun doesn’t influence people’s decisions borders on the insane.

“Sugar doesn’t give people diabetes, people do.”

“Drugs don’t make people addicted, people do.”

“Money doesn’t run the country, politicians do.”

These tenets assume that people act completely on their own, independent and devoid of any influences like environment, availability and culture. But then why do the gun lobby, pharma and food industry spend billions of dollars a year to convince you to buy their products and support their positions? After all, if people are completely independent actors, the ad spending is surely  a complete waste of money?

And politicians act totally independently, irrespective, for example, of any funds and favors they have been given by outside groups?

It might be convenient to say that people have responsibility for their actions, as indeed we do, but it is an example of simplistic, binary brain thinking to assume that means that there are no other significant influences on their behavior.

I am not against the second amendment. I have no political affiliation. For one thing, the notion of a two party system is a function of a limiting binary brain that can only see two simplistic and polarized sides of a complex, multi-faceted issue. Moreover, political identification means that every issue is seen through the lens of party politics.

As Chesterton says, what’s wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

Why Didn’t Gladiators Take a Knee?

Of all the “sports” stars of any era, the group that probably had the most reason to protest the national anthem were the gladiators. Thrown to wild animals with a high risk of death just to entertain the affluent Romans was a tough ask, especially as some of them weren’t even Romans. Few, if any, had any sort of civil rights, and had some had been captured in battle. There were other reasons for them to protest. First, they were almost always scheduled against the Lions. For goodness sake you’d think the Emperor could have persuaded the Packers or the Bears to come once in a while. The fact is that most fights were between gladiators.

Of course, the Gladiators didn’t have much say in the matter but, in a move that anticipated the 2017 Steelers, they were not just left in the locker room while the anthem played, they were actually tied up so they couldn’t cause a nuisance. Just ask Russell Crowe. Well, that is a slight misrepresentation.

Gladiators could be men captured in battle, criminals, or slaves seeking freedom. Those with the worst criminal record or social black marks were given the toughest fights where survival was improbable. Sometimes, two hated criminals would fight against each other. Many men actually volunteered to gladiate in an attempt to win their freedom. Some of them died trying to make a living. There were even female gladiators.

If you tend to think critically of life in ancient eras you might be surprised to know that apart from technology there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between life then and now.

Although initially introduced to mark the death of the loved one of an affluent person or a politico, the popularity of the gladiator fights grew rapidly. The whole gladiator system ultimately was designed to benefit the affluent and the politicians, who staged grand gladiatorial events to hype their popularity and curry favors, especially around election time. Gladiators were big business.

A typical fight would last between 10 and 15 minutes, about as much actual playing time as there is an NFL game. There could be many fights at the same event, making it a fun day out for spectators who sometimes determined the outcome by their vocal support for one or other of the fighters. Sometimes the ref decided. There was no instant replay. Many losers were spared the death penalty and lived to fight for years.

However, despite the violence and death, there was a reverence for the spectacle amongst spectators and gladiators alike. Those who were about to lose, often laid down their weapons in a humble acceptance of their fate. Even those who died, were respected for their bravery. So, perhaps, if given a chance, the gladiators wouldn’t have protested. Not only would they have paid for such a protest dearly, some of the better ones would have lost their sponsorship, which could be significant. And many knew that being a gladiator gave them a chance to rise above their oppressed status.

A Hurricane, a Dog, and the Secret of Wisdom

There were many sad photos last week at the height of Hurricane Harvey’s Texas destruction. One, particularly, stood out for me. It was a photo of a German Shepherd, all alone, tied to a pole, in the midst of rising waters.

The social media response to the photo was damning. Many people condemned the owners for leaving a dog in such a vulnerable position. Several suggested eternal damnation for the people who abandoned this animal. Many people posted that they couldn’t comprehend leaving their animals at all, let alone left so vulnerably. The invective and hate were running full throttle. And there’s the problem with human beings.

The photo definitely evoked emotions, and people ran with the thoughts those emotions evoked without seemingly any attempt to consider the universe of possibilities. They accepted their first — and only — perception and the emotion that the photo elicited. Here are several thoughts that would have been useful.

I wonder whether that is a staged photo?

Is this dog lost or was it abandoned?

Perhaps the owners left it there briefly to rescue their other dogs and the cat?

Perhaps the owners are out of shot, hailing a rescue boat?

Etc., etc.

Moreover, even if the dog had been abandoned, what were the circumstances?

Perhaps the owner was searching for his lost children? Or searching for his/her parents, spouse and other three animals?

It is also likely that whomever this dog belonged to, was in a severe state of stress, possibly having seen their home, lifestyle and future totally destroyed. I have had to evacuate from oncoming hurricanes. I have always taken my pets and couldn’t imagine leaving them behind, and many don’t evacuate for precisely that reason. Last year, Hurricane Matthew actually hit my community but despite a lot of damage, it was nothing like Harvey. However, let’s cut some slack to people whose lives has just been brutally turned upside down and truly are in survival mode. This doesn’t condone cruelty and the abandonment of animals, but neither should it justify the cruelty and abandonment of people.

The point is that the hurricane that is in this picture, isn’t a tropical cyclone, it is the seemingly increasing human incapacity to think beyond what is at the surface, what I call “iceberg thinking.” At a time in our evolution, when people have mastered the art of emotional manipulation (see Advertizing), we need our capacity to be discerning more than ever. We need to realize that the default setting of the brain is indeed a quick, impulsive, emotional response, which drives the narrative. But we have to move on from there, because that is the road not just to fake news, but hate and the end of objectivity, intelligence and wisdom.

Three of the hardest words to utter are simple: “I don’t know.” I have seen thousands of affirmations designed to improve self-confidence and remove fear but for me, before all that, we should start with this one.

“I really don’t know what is going on. I can imagine dozens of scenarios, but without more information I don’t know. And when I don’t know, I am in no position to judge.”

That is the thought process of the wise person.

PS: When I saw this photo, Leaha Mattinson and I had just finished recording a Master Your Life episode on the Secret of Wisdom, which begins airing tomorrow, Tuesday September 5th at noon ET on VoiceAmerica radio.

https://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/102147/they-secret-of-wisdom

NASA Intercepts Alien Messages about Human Behavior During the Eclipse

 

 

According to unofficial sources, one of the most spectacular aspects of the recent eclipse might have been the fact that aliens from another planet observed how humans responded to the rare event. Yesterday, unofficial sources revealed they had intercepted a message that appeared to come from a distant galaxy. The deciphered text reads as follows:

“The earth people had their passing event — they call it an “eclipse” — a few days ago and observations revealed something interesting about the inhabitants of planet 234987246546b (i.e. earth).

“As the planet cooled and darkened, insects were heard to chirp, animals made sounds and the earth people looked up at the sky. But then something strange happened.

“As soon as the white orb reappeared, the earth people scattered. They moved hurriedly and sought the shelter of their wheeled metal protectors.This running behavior seems odd and there have been several explanations for this behavior.

“Professor Vader of the Alpha Centuri School for Earth People Studies, who has researched earth people for the past two hundred years, has offered several explanations for this odd behavior.

“One theory is that they were scared of the returning light and rushed for protection. Another theory is that the returning light somehow stimulated their muscles and they felt compelled to run around, ” said Professor Vader. “Their brains are very odd and easily influenced. They can be impulsive and my best bet is that they were running away. They didn’t just run and seek the protection of their metal protectors, they actually fled the scene very quickly. Moreover, this was a scene that was observed almost everywhere the Passing occurred.

“This is an exciting discovery and we have tentatively  named the new behavior, Light Avoidance Under Geological Hiatus Syndrome or LAUGHS for short.”

(End intercepted message)

Officials at NASA are not offering any comments at this time.

“More research is needed,” said an executive director of the agency.

Disclaimer: This story could not be independently verified so readers should take it with a small dose of sodium chloride.