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.

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.

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