Why Don’t People Prepare?


A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) survey found that nearly 60% of American adults have not practiced what to do in a disaster and only 39% have developed an emergency plan. This is despite the fact that 80% of Americans live in counties that have been hit with a weather-related disaster since 2007, as reported by the Washington Post. With the number and severity of weather-related disasters on the rise, the America’s PrepareAthon! is an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and communities to take action to prepare for specific hazards through group discussions, drills, and exercises.

But why don’t people prepare? In their new book, The Ostrich Paradox, Why We Underprepare for Disasters, authors Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suggest there are six key reasons:

  • Inertia: The feeling that you don’t need to protect yourself yet.
  • Myopia: The irrational feeling that since things are fine now and have been fine for as long as you’ve been in the area, they’ll continue to always be fine.
  • Herding: Looking to others to tell you what to do to prepare for a disaster and not doing it if you do not see an authority telling you to.
  • Optimism: While this is normally a positive trait, in the event of a disaster it can make you downplay the risks and thus fail to take adequate measures to protect yourself.
  • Amnesia: No matter how badly natural disasters damage an area people are quick to forget these events and the lessons that should have been learned from them.
  • Simplification: A lack of awareness of the full extent of damage that a natural disaster can cause and the scenarios that a family will be in if they’re caught in one (i.e., how they are going to get out of the area if the roads are shut down).

Alan Jacobs and Scott Matthews from the University of British Columbia offer a complementary explanation in their paper, “Why Do Citizens Discount the Future?”.  In it, they discuss experimental research designed to answer that question and conclude that citizens’ bias towards the present derives in large part from uncertainty about the long term. Their work was designed for public policy, but this research supports theories about “temporal discounting” and suggests that risks that are perceived to be years away or uncertain have little motivational force in our behavior.

All of these may be valid reasons, and the research is important to understand human behavior regarding preparedness. But a major earthquake will happen, we must prepare for it, and perhaps need to overcome our normal tendencies in order to do so.