Be aware of gap between recognition and action to improve disaster preparedness

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~ ‘Normalcy bias’ incurs evacuation delay
Normalcy bias trap~

When someone is faced with disaster, gaps between their recognition and action intensify damage — this fact has attracted attention since the Great East Japan Earthquake. A mental function called ‘normalcy bias’ is one of the factors.
‘Bias’ is assumption and prejudice. Everyone tries to stay calm when they encounter some trouble by assuming “it’s ok - no problem.” It is called the mind’s stabilizing function. This normalcy bias function prevents us from being too concerned by the small stuff. However, in cases of disaster and emergency, normalcy bias incurs delayed evacuation and increased damage.
Examples from the Great East Japan Earthquake: some people assumed “The tsunami won’t reach here” and failed to evacuate even when they heard the tsunami alert; some people were recalling the Chile Earthquake when the tsunami didn’t reach very far; there were even some people who just watched it on TV, without even trying to escape. It has also become known that during the Mount On take eruption, which took 58 lives including mountain climbers two years ago, many people failed to escape while they were taking pictures and movies of the eruption.

Disaster prevention is delayed by replacing inconvenient information with convenient information
The reason many people fail to prepare for disaster has to do with the way our minds work. It has become recently evident that a mechanism in the mind called ‘cognitive dissonance’ psychologically replaces inconvenient information (such as the need to prepare against disaster) in a convenient way.
We are inherently not good at dealing with contradictory information. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ is a condition where we feel uneasy when we recognize contradiction. To resolve this condition, we interpret hard-to-accept information in a convenient way, in an attempt to maintain psychological stability. This mechanism is considered one of the reasons we postpone disaster prevention.
The Nankai Trough earthquake, for example, is predicted to occur within the next 30 years with a probability of 70 percent. However, when someone thinks “anti-earthquake reinforcement for the house costs a lot and it is hard to prepare emergency equipment,” they justify doing nothing by reasoning that “it will not occur during my lifetime” or “neighbors do not do it either,” even if they understand “preventive measures are necessary.”
Many of the Mashiki-town residents who suffered the seismic intensity 7 Kumamoto earthquake in April this year said “I hadn’t even imagined an earthquake in this town.” It might be true that risk information did not pervade the residents’ minds even though they lived above a known fault belt.
This is not confined to the matter of Mashiki-town. There must be countless similar people throughout this country.

Start with a small step
Disaster psychology teaches that, when confronted with a disaster, 70 to 80 percent of people will get stunned and be at a loss about how to respond, and only about 10 percent will be able to take proper action immediately.
This is why an evacuation drill is important. It forces us to master the evacuating action and enables us to react before thinking. It is important to learn by repeating mechanical drills in order to act with a conditioned reaction and to prevent evacuation delay due to normalcy bias.
Anti-disaster preparation is similar to other chores in that we might tend to put it off if we think we need to do everything at once. If we starting thinking something is “annoying” or “hard” we might tend to assume “it will probably be no problem” and do nothing, in order to resolve cognitive dissonance.
Therefore, beginning with a small step is effective. At first, gathering a water bottle or a back pack with some emergency gear is OK. This method lowers little by little the hurdle for anti-disaster measures and the wall of cognitive dissonance. Step-by-step advance of preparation is considered desirable.

【Tips for disaster】

If you encounter an earthquake at the following places:
・ In the train
The train will stop urgently. Secure your safety by holding tight to a strap or a hand rail. Follow the crew’s instruction to evacuate. In case of the subway, refrain from getting off the train without any instruction, because the track carries high voltage electricity.
・ On the subway
You are generally safer below ground than on or above ground, because the shock of the earthquake is weaker. However, you may be in danger of fire. Since emergency exits are provided every 60 meters, avoid huddling together. Evacuate calmly instead. Walk along walls in case of electric outage.
・ On the car
Abrupt stops are dangerous. Turn on your hazard lights, slow down, and park on the left. When the earthquake is over, move to some open space or parking area, if possible. When you evacuate, leave your car unlocked and your key inserted. Take out valuable goods and the car inspection certificate.
・ In a downtown area
To protect yourself against falling objects, move to a safe place such as a park. If you can’t find any in the vicinity, escape into a building such as high-rise which satisfies quake-resistance standards. Act in a calm way, since panicked crowds are extremely dangerous.
・ In a convenience store or supermarket
There is a high risk that articles on display and shelves fall over. You must be cautious of shattering pieces of glass from refrigeration cases and windows. Protect your head with a shopping basket or your bag and move to a safer place beside a column, for example, to protect yourself.

Newsletter, September 2016 by JRCS