How Do Outsiders Respond to Natural Disasters?

Research shows that it's hard to get people to worry about future disasters.
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Aftermath from the earthquake in Nepal. (Photo: Krish Dulal/Wikimedia Commons)

Aftermath from the earthquake in Nepal. (Photo: Krish Dulal/Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the tragedy in Nepal, you’d think earthquake preparedness would become a major worry of people all around the world.

But if history is any indication, that won’t be the case.

In a 2013 poll courtesy of SUNYIT/Zogby Analytics, just 36 percent of respondents said they had “an emergency plan” in place in case of a major catastrophe. It's not surprising, then, that only 23 percent reported that a natural disaster in their community was likely.

Human beings in general don’t care much about tragedies outside our own front lawns.

So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that a 2007 survey found that families in Nepal, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey weren’t especially concerned about earthquakes—despite living in a major quake zone. In fact, over half of the Indonesian residents polled said they had “done nothing in particular” to reduce the impact of earthquakes. In Nepal, 62 percent of the respondents were aware their house was not built to withstand an earthquake, but two-thirds still said they weren’t planning on adding any earthquake-proofing safety measures to their homes. Of course, as the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman points out, much of the responsibility falls on the Nepalese government, “which has remained polarized since the country's 10-year civil war ended in 2006, and rapid, slapdash urbanization without corresponding government enforcement of building codes.” But it also raises an interesting question: Why are people not more personally motivated by past occurrences?

Maybe in part because human beings in general don’t care much about tragedies outside our own front lawns. A study released last year revealed a link between firsthand experience and compassion on social media. Empathy, it seems, is somewhat dependent on proximity.

The last massive earthquake to hit Nepal was in 1934. That was quite some time ago; long enough, perhaps, that people simply stopped worrying. (This would be a good time to remind you to not give in to slacktivism; donate to relief efforts now.) Maybe, as the Rand Corporation's Lori Uscher-Pines, Anita Chandra, Joie Acosta, and Arthur L. Kellermann advise, people simply need "real information on what works and what doesn't as a foundation for public education and outreach going forward," rather than taking the "stockpiling supplies" approach, which has only created a more apathetic public.

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