Even in the face of a disaster, we remain optimistic about
our chances of injury compared to others, according to a new study.
Residents of a town struck by a tornado thought their risk
of injury from a future tornado was lower than that of peers, both a month and
a year after the destructive twister. Such optimism could undermine efforts
toward emergency preparedness.
After an F-2 tornado struck his town in Iowa, Jerry Suls, a
psychologist at the University of Iowa who studies social comparison, turned
his attention to risk perception.
"I had dinner as a guest in a home that was destroyed
by the tornado the next evening," he recalls. "It was hard not to
think about future weather disasters while helping with the clean-up in the
Perceptions of risk
So Suls and colleagues set out to survey three different
populations in his town about their perceptions of risk from future tornadoes.
They recruited college students, local residents contacted
through random-digit dialing, and residents in neighborhoods affected by the
tornado and, over a period of one year, asked them questions about both
"absolute" and comparative risk.
"Although risk can be framed in absolute terms, for
example, a 1 in 100 chance of being injured in an automobile accident, people are
particularly interested in their risk relative to other people," he says.
Comparative questions included "How likely is it you
will be injured by a tornado in the next 10 years, compared with the average
Iowan (-2 = much less likely to +2 much = more likely)?"; questions of
absolute risk included "How likely, from a statistical or scientific point
of view, is it you would experience a tornado injury in the next ten years (0%
As reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
students and community residents reported being less vulnerable than their
peers at 1 month, 6 months, and 1 year after the disaster, while absolute risk
estimates were more optimistic with time.
Surprisingly to the researchers, people who lived in
neighborhoods that had directly been affected by the storm – having experienced
damaged windows, roofs, automobiles, etc. – were actually more optimistic for
the first 6 months than people living in neighborhoods that had no visible
damage from the storm.
"We speculate that for a while, they felt 'lightning
wouldn't strike twice in the same place,'" Suls says. "A year later,
their optimism was comparable to the people in the undamaged
Optimism helps people in the long run
Also surprising, Suls says, was that although participants
reported being less likely than others to be injured in the future from
tornadoes, their objective numerical estimates tended to be pessimistic
compared to the estimates of weather storm experts. People believed they had
approximately a 1-in-10 chance of injury from future tornadoes – which is an
overestimate of the scientifically calculated risk of less than 1 in 100.
"People tend to maintain an optimistic view,
particularly with regard to their fate compared to other people," Suls
says. "Even the proximity of a significant weather disaster seems to do
little to shake that optimism." While this may seem counterintuitive, he
explains, it is the norm, and may help explain why some people are so reticent
to seek shelter during natural disasters.
It is possible that living for a long period of time among
the rubble from a disaster, as was the case for the Iowan residents for two
years after the tornado, increases defensiveness and perhaps denial about the
risks from future storms, Suls says.
With weather disasters seeming to become more frequent in
recent years, he says, it is also possible that there is a cumulative effect on
peoples' optimism and feelings of vulnerability. More research is necessary to
examine how these attitudes influence emergency preparedness.