As a Manhattan resident, this past week my life has been dominated by one event: Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, unlike tornadoes or earthquakes, hurricanes allow time for people to prepare. In the hours leading up to this hurricane, government officials issued mandatory evacuations for residents of coastal areas that were likely to be hit hardest. Residents were urged to seek shelter with friends and relatives or utilize one of numerous shelters opened (some with transportation included). Despite government officials pleading with citizens to evacuate dangerous areas, many decided to stay.
For some during Hurricane Sandy, the decision to stay had tragic and costly consequences. At least 14 of the people who died in Staten Island were found in evacuation zones. In areas such as Long Island’s South Shore, some people panicked as the storm got worse, putting volunteer first responders in harm’s way. And in the hours after the storm, rescue workers ventured into some of the most devastated areas to retrieve residents who had been stranded.
Who are the people who ignored evacuation orders? Given such strong warnings and opportunities for shelter, what caused them to stay? In this post, I will propose some psychological characteristics that might describe non-evacuators. I do not think any single characteristic accounts for people's choices; instead, a host of factors, both personal and situational, probably contributes to the decision to leave or to stay. To be clear, these are my hypotheses, and as far as I know, they are not supported by data. Nevertheless, I hope you will read on and share your own hypotheses.
Here are three differences in personality that I think might describe those who stayed at home in evacuation zones:
We all appraise and react to threats differently. When people are told a new strain of the flu is out, some people feel a strong sense of threat. They get flu shots immediately, stock up on orange juice, and wash their hands constantly. Others take a more carefree approach, not changing their routines and only getting flu shots if they’re convenient. The first group would likely be high in trait anxiety, while the second would be low. Trait anxiety is considered to be a stable characteristic and generally corresponds with how many situations people perceive as threatening and how intensely they respond to threats.
Is it possible that people did not evacuate because they were low in trait anxiety and did not perceive the oncoming storm as a great danger? Even if people low in trait anxiety did see the storm as threatening, it’s possible that they reacted to it less intensely as well. Maybe they closed up doors and windows, but did not go so far as to evacuate. In contrast, think about those high in trait anxiety – I can certainly imagine that they would be gone before the evacuation orders were even issued.
Reactance refers to a motivational state caused by threats to one’s freedom or autonomy. It leads people to exhibit behaviors that will restore their sense of freedom. Reactance can influence people to reject advice because it is seen as a threat to autonomy and to pursue an opposing course of action. For example, in a study of anti-smoking messages, 10th graders said they were more likely to try a cigarette soon if they read an explicit message not to smoke, rather than one that emphasized their freedom to choose. Teens are notoriously high-reactant individuals (i.e., they exhibit reactance frequently), and this study demonstrated the power of a controlling message to influence them in the opposite direction.
Perhaps people who did not evacuate when the storm was coming did so because they are also high-reactant individuals. When President Obama told them, “You need to evacuate. . . . Don’t question the instructions that are being given,” high-reactant people may have sensed this as an imposition on their freedom to make their own decisions about what to do. If high-reactant, they may have tried to restore their sense of freedom by opposing the advice and staying put.
According to the five-factor model of personality, openness to experience is one of the main dimensions of personality. People who are low in openness to experience prefer engaging in activities that are familiar and predictable. On Saturday night, your friends who are high in openness to experience are the ones who want to try the new restaurant across town with exotic cuisine; your friends who are low on openness to experience would love to go to your same old stomping grounds. Might people low in openness to experience prefer to stay at home, rather than go to a shelter?
Packing up your things and heading to a shelter to ride out a storm is a new experience, filled with many unknowns. Who else will be there? Will I get any sleep at night? Can I stay near my dog? Even staying with relatives poses more unknowns than one’s daily routine at home. Leaving the comfort of one’s home to stay at a shelter requires a certain degree of flexibility in one’s behaviors. Therefore, I think it’s possible that some individuals did not evacuate because they preferred not to deviate from routine. Instead, they opted to stay at home, where everything was well known and familiar.
I want to emphasize again that these are three of my hypotheses, and they are not based on data about those who did not evacuate. I'm sure there are plenty of other factors, both personal and situational, that influenced people to stay at home. These are just my attempts to explain what characteristics might describe people who remain in risky locations during a dangerous storm.
What do you think of these hypotheses? If you live in an evacuation zone, did you leave or did you stay? Let us know if you think of other characteristics that might describe people who do not evacuate.
Gaudry, E., Vagg, P., & Spielberger, C. (1975). Validation of the State-Trait Distinction in Anxiety Research. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 10 (3), 331-341 DOI: 10.1207/s15327906mbr1003_6
Grandpre, J., Alvaro, E.M., Burgoon, M., Miller, C.H., & Hall, J.R. (2003). Adolescent reactance and anti-smoking campaigns: a theoretical approach. Health communication, 15 (3), 349-66 PMID: 12788679