Human behaviour and warnings – a new way

Disaster psychologists focus on human response to disasters when creating warning systems, but it’s so far more of an art than a science. Issuing warnings is one thing, but getting useful and timely response from those potentially affected is an altogether more challenging business.

I was fascinated by a new report in Scientific American which got me thinking maybe we have to think differently.

Let’s go back a little: Dr Rob Gordon ( from Melbourne has written extensively about the chemical changes in the human brain which determine how people will respond during disasters. It’s more complex than any “fight or flight” mechanism. He describes shock, over-arousal, stress, emotion and anxiety as typical stressors.

Tasmanian researcher Doug Paton adds risk perception; levels of preparedness, financial position; beliefs, language and culture; understanding of the environment; previous experience; and things like having responsibility for pets and children and elderly all add to the noise that prevents people hearing simple messages and taking action. (“Warning systems: issues and considerations for warning the public” School of Psychology, University of Tasmania. Launceston.)

Now this item from Scientific American sheds interesting light on human behaviour during disasters which gives us pause for thought. Maybe in a complex enviroinment we need to think about how we talk to each other, not on just what we say.

“Social connection may be particularly important under stress because stress naturally leads to a sense of vulnerability and loss of control. A study by Benjamin Converse and colleagues at the University of Virginia found that feeling out of control (through a reminder of one’s mortality) leads to greater generosity and helpfulness while research at Stanford University by Aneeta Rattan and Krishna Savani showed that the opposite is true when we are primed with feelings of self-determination and control.”

Perhaps warning systems have to embrace emotional capacity. Perhaps an encouraging helpful and friendly tone has as much role to play as timeliness and accuracy?

I was constantly puzzled when researching my Bushfires book why strong, friendly communities abandoned relationships when confronted by a wall of flame, and concentrated on themselves and their family, and then fled. The Canberra experience was particularly distressing in this regard.

If people are more generous then warnings content like: “help your family and friends and neighbours,” would sit comfortably with people, but also penetrate their natural behaviour emotions. If this was the case then early warnings would have more impact, as people stopped thinking only of their personal need, but started to imagine how they might also assist their community. If this led to earlier response and preparation, it would be a useful outcome.

In any event research like this in Scientific American reminds us that issuing warnings has to go further than “keep it simple.”  Emeritus Professor Dennis Miletti from the University of Colorado, says it’s surprising how much content people confronting a disaster can absorb.

Paton says “a single warning is not sufficient to get people involved and to respond.” (“Promoting Household and Community Preparedness for bush fires.” )


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