Your Brain on Natural Hazards

In order to determine how best to communicate the risk of extreme weather events, it’s important to understand how the brain interprets risk. A survey conducted last fall to residents of Mid-Atlantic states in the path of post-tropical cyclone Sandy, which revealed why the minimal damage caused by a hurricane the year before lowered risk perceptions, provides a number of insights into how communicators can help people be better prepared for future events.

When Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City on October 29 of last year, the media had already dubbed it by the nicknames “Superstorm Sandy” and “Frankenstorm.” On its path through the Caribbean by way of Jamaica and Cuba and north along the Atlantic coast, the storm vacillated between a Category 1 and 2 hurricane. When the storm made landfall at the Jersey shore as a post-tropical cyclone, wind speeds of eighty miles per hour were recorded. Several elements of nature combined to make Sandy an extremely damaging event. The storm was enormous in size (about 900 miles across); it made a sharp left turn over coastal NJ (due to a blocked weather pattern in the northern hemisphere) that put it directly in the path of the densely populated Mid-Atlantic Coast; it traveled over unusually warm surface water; and the storm hit during a full moon that raised tides and allowed for greater storm surge.
In the end, Sandy caused an estimated $30 billion in economic damages in the United States (Center for American Progress). It was the second costliest natural disaster in 2012 (the sustained drought and heat wave of last year caused an estimated $78 billion in damages) (Ibid). The storm is attributed to 104 deaths in New York State, Connecticut, and New Jersey (WNYC). Where I live in New York City, the effects are still being felt long after Sandy’s passing. In the aftermath of the storm the Department of Housing and Urban Development  estimated that between 20,000-40,000 New Yorkers were left homeless (NYT).  Subway stations are still out of order and will take multiple years and several million dollars to repair. Approximately 8.5 million people lost power in the storm and at the end of January, 24.2 percent of Long Island Power Authority customers in the Rockaway section of Queens were still without electricity (WNYC).
Tremendous lessons were learned with Sandy, and political leaders from the affected states acknowledged the likelihood of more extreme events and the need for proactive measures to address natural hazards as climate change continues unabated. In the wake of Sandy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo formed three separate commissions to improve New York’s emergency preparedness, response, and infrastructure. Engineers provided a range of solutions for flood gates in the waters surrounding New York City, and adaptation experts highlighted the merits of altering the built environment. And yet natural science and engineering can only achieve so much. Humans are irrational actors and rarely make predictable decisions on an individual basis. In the case of extreme events and other environmental risks, social science disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and decision science can provide insight regarding decision making under conditions of uncertainty, what shapes people’s perception of risk, and how information can be communicated to yield beneficial behavior change. Uptake and use of information that will enhance adaptation and emergency response requires the involvement of social scientists.
As Sandy was nearing landfall, researchers were collecting valuable data about these very issues. The work is part of a project examining the human response to natural hazards by researchers from Florida State University, the University of Miami, University of Pennsylvania, and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Researchers conducted a real-time survey of risk perceptions and preparatory actions of 538 residents in Mid-Atlantic states from Southwest Virginia to the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. What they found was a mixed result of preparedness.
While the sample exhibited universal awareness of the threat that Sandy posed, results showed that there was widespread confusion about the nature of the warnings and that preparation for the storm was insufficient. During the storm, the National Weather Service chose not to issue hurricane watches or warnings along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, instead allowing local weather service offices to issues warning levels (Baker et. al 2013). Survey respondents overestimated the probability that homes would experience strong winds and underestimated the risk from storm surge, flooding, and expected power outages. As evidenced by the sizeable amount of sand left in peoples’ homes after the storm, the storm surge was actually much more damaging than the wind in the case of Sandy and many people were left unprepared for such damage or the prolonged power outages that followed.
Additionally, few survey respondents were truly worried about personal safety before Sandy hit, even in the immediate coastal areas facing the greatest threat.  Hurricane Irene hit the Mid-Atlantic coast with minimal damage just the year prior to Sandy, and survey results also showed that perceptions of risk were lowest among those who had experienced a hurricane but did not experience damage.
The example of Sandy and results from this survey brings to light many questions faced by climate practitioners on a daily basis. How can we better communicate the risks of climate change, even when exact impacts may be fuzzy? How can we work together with natural scientists, policymakers, and educators to better prepare the public for risky situations?
In the case of natural hazards, research on the brain’s two processing systems, experiential and analytic, is particularly useful to understand and improve risk communication. The experiential system relates current situations to memories of one’s own or others’ experience. It does not incorporate complicated statistical representations because they cannot be easily imagined. A person’s current situation is matched against past experience and categorized accordingly. The experiential system comes into play when people compared their experiences with Sandy to that of Irene the year before, even though the storms rendered severely different impacts. Conversely, the analytic system includes mechanisms that relate current situations to processed ensembles of past relevant experience that easily express statistical constructs. The analytic system is often deliberative and uses logical rules to make decisions (Marx et. al 2007).
Understanding the way in which information is communicated and the processes triggered by that communication can be important determinants in the outcome of decisions. Experiential information overwhelms statistical information unless statistical information is re-expressed visually, narratively, or in ways that can be combined with personal experience. Groups, like individuals, are more motivated by concrete information than statistical information when deciding which risks are worth paying attention to and when to take protective action (Marx et. al 2007). 
Knowledge about how people process information can help practitioners improve communication by translating scientific information into concrete experience.  This can be accomplished in a few ways:
  • When creating presentations on climate change, use experiential tools such as vivid imagery and messages designed to create, recall, and highlight relevant personal experience and elicit an emotional response
  • Ensure your message combines elements that appeal to both the analytic and experiential processing systems
  • Avoid using jargon, complicated scientific terms, and acronyms
  • If a scientific term is necessary, thoroughly define it for the audience
The challenge is in finding creative and innovative ways to engage both systems. Sandy brought attention to the issue of messaging and clear communication of threats from natural hazards. Results from the Sandy survey reveal the difference between risk perception and level of preparations – while the majority of respondents took some protective action, messaging can be altered to make sure the right protective actions are taken. Research at the intersection of social science and environmental decisionmaking can help us understand how to frame these messages and enhance resilience.
More information on climate change communication and tips for practitioners is available in CRED’s The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A guide for scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public.
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Courtney St. John

Associate Director for Outreach at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University