Irrational Decisions in Disasters: The Behaviors of Evacuation

Watching the news, there seems to be a cataclysm in play somewhere any day of the week. Among them are the wildfires scorching parts of California. News reports often feature people in evacuation who are scrambling to fetch personal items from their homes as the danger creeps closer to home. I’m rather intrigued by what people grab from their endangered home in this context. I am unable to find a deliberate study of this emotionally charged decision scene. It strikes me as a valuable scenario to understand the role of emotion in forced decision situations.

Usually, evacuees have little control over the following parameters in responding to request to retrieve personal items before vacating. For example, the event that triggers the entire scenario is out of anyone’s control as the is the announcement of the  impending evacuation. Added to that, an official from law enforcement or the government establishes the deadline for vacating one’s home, and evacuees will only be allowed to return at some unknown future date. Unless there is no place to which they can return.

All of this adds up to an emotionally charged situation, and some key decisions must be made. Adding to the difficulty is that residents are usually learning all the rules of disaster response while in the disaster. They’re among the primary actors, but they are also learning their part in media res. Ultimately, people must quickly decide what to retrieve from their doomed home. Logic would likely lead one to fetch the following items:

  • Immunization Records and Medical History
  • Copies of Recent Medical Tests
  • Passports
  • Medical Directives
  • Living Will, or Last Will & Testament
  • Power of Attorney
  • Financial and Investment Paperwork

    The loss of these items will surely create tons of chaos in a persons life, potentially even causing the loss of life (eg: a person is injured while at a temporary shelter, but the lack of quickly accessible medical information from home causes confusion).

    But, are these the items most people think to grab first? While I have no empirical data (as I noted at the outset), I would wager that most people would feel compelled to rescue family photos, their 12-year old dog, or some treasured family heirloom first. Let’s assume for a moment that this is so. The reasons why are less about cold logic and have more to do with matters of the heart—but this does not make them any less important or measureable.

    Marketing experts have long known that people behave differently (make different purchasing decisions) depending on their mood the state of their emotions. One of the goals of marketing is to create an environment wherein the consumer feels good and can link, often subconsciously, that feeling to a product or service. For example, a marketer for an automobile manufacturer will want a so-called “soccer mom” to link the emotional attachment and devotion she has for her family to a mini-van. The message: “This car will help you have memorable and cherished experiences with your kids. You’ll be a better mom.”

    As I watch fires, floods, and f5 tornadoes cause people to scramble back to their homes to save what they can I wonder how different their decisions would be if the circumstances were presented differently. Is there a way to decrease the role of emotion in this decision scenario? I think so. For example, what if all people who own homes in wildfire-prone areas were required to have fire-proof safes in order to purchase homeowner’s insurance? What if communities and industry worked harder to leverage central, secure, and redundant storage of all medical and other official information so that personal soft-copies were no longer necessary? What if communities had better and more fully embraced disaster plans so that evacuees were not given the crash course on Evacuation 101 the day of the disaster? These questions, when answered with concrete plans, can go a long way toward a better evacuation experience, an experience that affects millions of people each year.



    About John R. Durant

    Drawing on years fostering innovation in the high-tech industry, most notably at Microsoft, John is a principal researcher at Savvysherpa building new businesses.
    This entry was posted in Economics, Experiments, Finance, Innovation, Marketing, Retail. Bookmark the permalink.

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