Prior Near-Misses Make People Overconfident in Emergency Situations

By Matthew Harwood


Regardless of whether they were students or participants with risk expertise, an overwhelming majority bought flood insurance when they had no information on past near-misses. But once participants learned of prior near-misses, their desire to buy flood insurance dropped, although professionals with some risk expertise needed more misses before they decided to forgo flood insurance.

Then in the second study, the researchers asked 258 undergraduates whether they would evacuate after receiving information that a hurricane could hit their area within 36 hours. They were then divided into two groups: those told no previous damage information was available and those told they had lived through three previous storms that did not damage their or their neighbor's properties. Researchers complicated their decision by giving different members of each group four different probabilities that the hurricane would strike tied to increasing evacuation costs.

No matter the risk, people who had experienced previous near-misses chose to evacuate at a lower rate than those with no knowledge of previous near-misses.

“It might be said that near-miss information changes people's frame of reference,” the researchers write. "A certain probability of hit that might have felt risky before feels less risky now because they escaped unharmed in the past."

Based on their findings, the researchers argue that emergency managers need to take the near-miss effect into account when communicating with the public.

"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," the article notes."Since this near-miss influence seems to operate automatically, people may need explicitly to be taught to counteract their gut feelings."

♦ Photo of Hurricane Ike destruction by USACEpublicaffairs/Flickr


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