Even in the face of a disaster, people remain optimistic about their chances of injury compared to others, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Iowa found that residents of a town hit by a tornado thought their risk of injury from a future tornado was lower than that of their peers, both a month and a year after the destructive twister.
After an F-2 tornado hit his town in Iowa, Dr. 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 said. “It was hard not to think about future weather disasters while helping with the cleanup in the following weeks.”
Suls and his colleagues surveyed 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 hit by the tornado. Over the next year, they asked them questions about “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,” Suls explained.
Comparative questions included “How likely is it you will be injured by a tornado in the next 10 years, compared with the average Iowan?”
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 10 years?”
Students and the randomly chosen residents reported being less vulnerable than their peers at one month, six months, and one year after the tornado, while absolute risk estimates were more optimistic with time, the researchers reported.
They added they were surprised that people who lived in neighborhoods directly affected by the storm were actually more optimistic for the first six 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 said. “A year later, their optimism was comparable to the people in the undamaged neighborhoods.”
Also surprising, according to Suls, 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 experts. For example, 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 said. “Even the proximity of a significant weather disaster seems to do little to shake that optimism.”
While this may seem counterintuitive, it is the norm, and may help explain why some people are so reluctant to seek shelter during natural disasters, he noted.
It is possible that living for a long time among the rubble from a disaster — as was the case for the Iowa residents for two years after the tornado — increases defensiveness and perhaps denial about the risks from future storms, Suls said.
With weather disasters seeming to become more frequent in recent years, it is also possible that there is a cumulative effect on peoples’ optimism and feelings of vulnerability, he added.
More research is necessary to examine how these attitudes influence emergency preparedness, Suls concluded.
The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.