What Were They Thinking?: The Psychology of Riding Out the Storm

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Last night we put the call out for readers’ nagging hurricane questions. @BrothaDom and @michellesipics both asked for a peek into the minds of people who defy evacuation orders “in the face of everything that is sane.”

Just hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey last night, Governor Chris Christie chastised residents who stayed behind on the barrier islands running along the state’s shores—despite warnings from state officials and a mandatory evacuation order—and the local officials who encouraged them to do so. He then made it clear that he would not risk the lives of first responders in rescue attempts until conditions improved in the morning. “For those elected officials who decided to ignore my admonition,” he said, "this is now your responsibility.”

Why do some people insist on staying in the path of the storm long after others have been evacuated, the roads have closed or flooded and rescue is difficult or impossible? Why would they put their own lives and the lives of their rescuers at risk?

To answer that question, psychologists turned to the experts on the subject: the New Orleans residents who stayed behind and bore Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

Leavers vs. Stayers

The researchers, from Stanford University and Princeton University, interviewed people from four groups: New Orleans residents who rode the storm out; residents who left; rescue workers from outside the city who provided assistance during the storm; and people from elsewhere in the country who observed the situation through the media.

They found two important things. The first is that, among the survivors they spoke to, there were a variety of factors that played into the decision to leave or not. One major factor was finances and resources. “Leavers” usually had the money and transportation options to leave the city, and friends or relatives outside the storm’s path that they could stay with. “Stayers” usually had less income, fewer or no transportation options to get out of the city, and little to no social network outside of it. Many of those who stayed simply didn’t have the resources to do otherwise and had no choice but to ride things out.

But money and places to stay weren’t the only things decisions were based on. The researchers also found that there were psychological and psycho-social factors—like a mistrust of outsiders (in the form of people from outside the city making the decision that residents shouldn’t stay); a desire to stay close to neighbors, friends and others from one’s community for support; and a perceived obligation to, in turn, support and assist others from the community—that influenced the decision to not leave.

The other important finding was the way the groups in the study viewed those who evacuated and those who didn’t, and how they viewed themselves. Like Christie last night, federal and state officials and pundits criticized Katrina survivors for their choice to stay behind at the time. Likewise, when asked to describe the survivors who stayed, the other three groups used words like “lazy,” “stubborn,” and “negligent.” To describe the leavers, they used “hardworking,” “self-reliant,” and “responsible.”

Conjoint vs. Disjoint Model Citizens

These groups, the researchers say, viewed the stayers with certain assumptions about the way people act and make choices: that people are independent, that they make choices to influence their environment, and that those choices reflect their goals. This is called the disjoint model of human agency, a framework of action that dominates mainstream American culture and discourse among the middle-class.

The interviews with the people that stayed, though, revealed that they were playing by a different set of rules. The researchers found that their motivations and actions were more in line with the conjoint model of human agency, built around interdependence between individuals and the idea that people make choices to adapt themselves to their environment. It’s a model that psychologists have found at play often among working-class Americans.

Despite what outsiders and talking heads have had to say about those who choose to stay behind in a disaster, this research suggests that they often don’t have much choice in the matter. When they do, they aren’t choosing not to act, but are acting—despite constraints—in a way that fits their environment and worldview, and is sometimes just hard for others to recognize.