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The Katrina Crisis: Social Psychological Issues

September 18, 2005

Louisiana and the surrounding states are experiencing a regional disaster, precipitated by Katrina: a Category 5 hurricane that passed over Florida, strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, and then made landfall near the city of New Orleans. The hurricane caused massive destruction and death, for many residents were unable to evacuate to safety.

This crisis has prompted a strong response from Americans, as people across the country have expressed their concern for the well-being of the residents, wondered at the apparently slow response to the emergency, and asked questioned the causes and consequences of the crisis: Why wasn’t the destruction anticipated and steps taken to prevent it? Did local, state, and national officials ignore, or at least, minimize, the danger of the storm since it threatened only minorities and the poor? Why did the response proceed so slowly? All these issues are ones of central concern to social psychology.

Anticipating Disasters

People the world over are subjected, from time to time, to environmental stressors. Some of these, such as volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and typhoons, can be blamed on natural occurring disruptions in the planet’s meteorological and geological systems. Others, however, result from human error. These human-made disasters include nuclear accidents, the spilling of polluting substances, transportation accidents, building fires, industrial accidents, and the general degradation of living areas.

Certainly some disasters are utterly unpredictable, and no safeguards can be taken to avoid them. But in most instances people underestimate the threat of disaster, and/or fail to implement the steps needed to prevent them. What psychological factors set the stage for biased assessment of the risk of a disaster? Do people have a blind spot when it comes to predicting the possibility of a disaster, and the need to take steps to prevent them?

Misperceiving risk. Katrina was a natural disaster, complicated by human error. By all accounts the city of New Orleans was not sufficiently prepared to cope with the hurricane-although some experts suggest that all reasonable steps had been taken. However, the reaction of officials and citizens is consistent with people’s tendency to misperceive risk and retain a false sense of security. These cognitive biases are healthy, in the sense that sustain the idea that the world is well-ordered, but unhealthy in the sense they leave individuals unprepared for disaster when it does befall them. The unwarranted optimism that undermines the accuracy of risk perceptions can be traced to:

  • availability biases: relying excessively on vivid, but nondiagnostic information
  • illusions of control: the sense that the world, and outcomes, can be determined by one’s own actions. In consequence, most of us generally believe that unpredictable negative events, such as heart attacks, being fired, unwanted pregnancies, car accidents, alcoholism, and a devastating flood, won’t happen to us.

Group-based errors in risk-assessment. A second set of factors concerns the social, or interpersonal, dynamics, that set the stage for disasters. Many disasters can be traced back to a decision making body or group. The sinking of Estonia; the Challenger; the Exxon Valdez and the Aberan, South Wales, school tragedy were all the result of faulty group-level decision making. Although people tend to assume that a group will make a more reasonable decision than will a lone individual, research indicates that in some cases groups can make very bad decisions-particularly when trying to calibrate risk; rather than make cautious choices (such as assuming the worst and developing detailed plans for the evacuation of the city), groups tend to shift in the direction of more risky decisions. Many of the plans developed to cope with a disaster are created by groups, and they require a close integration of effort in response to the threat. In many cases, without extensive practice, groups are simply unable to respond in an organized fashion to a novel event.

Hindsight bias. In the days after Katrina struck New Orleans the media was filled with indictments of the city officials’ failure to anticipate the storm’s consequences. It may be, however, that this condemnation of officials in New Orleans is one more example of the hindsight bias. Our predictions about what will happen often seem more accurate once the event has moved from the future to the past; we often feel as though we “knew it all along”: when recalling their predictions about such matters as historical events, psychiatric cases, athletic contests, scientific experiments, medical and legal cases, fluctuations in the stock market, knowledge of trivia questions, and election outcomes, we are confident that we predicted the outcome well in advance. Yet these retrospective surveys of accuracy are usually distorted by the hindsight bias. Although today, it seems obvious that flood walls built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane would not protect a city located below sea level, what did people think in June of 2005? (However, experts like Mark Fischetti certainly seem to have predicted the catastrophe long before it occured: See this analysis).

Perceiving the Victims of Disasters

We can’t hear of an accident without asking who is to blame. When we learn of 1000 of people trapped in a “shelter” in New Orleans, of people losing all their possessions in a flood, or a National Guardsman suffering a broken leg when trying to rescue a flood victim, we wonder who deserves blame.

Defensive attribution. The tendency to blame individuals for actions that yield negative outcomes–even when the outcomes were unintended, unforeseeable, and accidental–is called defensive attribution. This response is a “defensive” one because, by blaming someone for an accident, observers assure themselves that a similar misfortune won’t befall them. The more severe the accident, the “more unpleasant to acknowledge that this is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone” (Walster, 1966, p. 74). Defensive attributions help us insulate ourselves from anxiety associated with the recognition that catastrophic events cannot always be avoided. The hindsight bias also influences attributions of blame, for once we learn about the negative consequences we unwittingly increase our estimates of the likelihood of the accident. As a result, an unforeseeable accident, when viewed in retrospect, becomes foreseeable

Just world thinking. We also blame people because we assume that the world is a fair place where people generally get what they deserve (Lerner & Miller, 1978). This just world hypothesis leads us to think that the flood victims must have deserved their misfortunes. In fact, we may even assume that those who tried to help and incurred injury, were partly to blame as well. Discussions of the flood in Blogs and websites have smacked of just world thinking when they have stressed that the victims had chosen to live in a dangerous city, built below sea-level. That the city’s name, the Big Easy, signaled its decadence, and that residents’ easy going life styles interfered with the work need to prepare for the flood. One site even mentioned that the hurricane visited New Orleans “because the city has more bars than churches.”

Blaming the victim. These biases can prompt us to mistakenly blame the victim of crimes and accidents for their misfortunes. When individuals are told about individuals who have experienced traumatic events that they could not have either foreseen or prevented, they nonetheless tend to blame the victim for playing a role in producing the event. Hearing that people suffered for days without receiving help, that they were victims of sniper fire, and that they were injured and received no care, observers may tend to say that the victims-by not attempting to evacuate-brought their problems on themselves. Such a view overlooks, of course, the fact that the victims in many cases had no means to escape from the path of the hurricane.

The Lens of Racial Bias. The victims of Hurricane Katrina trapped in New Orleans were, by a large majority, African Americans. The news footage of the event suggested that some whites were trapped in the city, but most of the victims were African Americans. Both white and black American’s perceptions of the Katrina crisis in New Orleans may have been tinged, to a large degree, by their stereotypes. Even non-prejudiced whites can misinterpret neutral behavior in racist ways, and so make basic mistakes in interpreting the evidence of their senses. White people, for example, when asked to make up a story about a picture of a black person interacting with a white person, usually assumed the Whites and Blacks were arguing with one another and they usually blamed the Black for starting the dispute (Allport & Postman, 1947). White college students who observed a staged argument between a Black and White in which one person shoved the other described the push as “violent” when the perpetrator was black, but “playing” or “dramatizing” when the perpetrator was white (Duncan, 1976). Junior high school boys described the actions committed by a black male in a drawing as “meaner” and more threatening than the identical behavior performed by a white male (Sagar & Schofield, 1980). In New Orleans, this bias prompted white news media to describe whites as “finding food in a store” and African American’s as looting a grocery story. (See, too, this analysis of the images).

Fundamental Attribution Error. In the midst of their coverage of the hurricane’s damage and the staggering loss of life, the news media reported bleaker news still: that people in the city were attacking one another. Instead of banding together to cope with the flood and its aftermath, the media report increases in murder, rape, and violence. Such reactions are, of course, difficult to explain in simple terms: although social psychology’s theories can explain aggression in terms of norms, deindividuation frustration, and the like, its outbreak on such a scale raises questions about the basic goodness of human nature. How could people exploit others so, in the face of a disaster of such proportions?

This perception, however, should be tempered by knowledge of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to the tendency to attribute behavior to internal, dispositional factors (Ross, 1977). Because of the FAE, we tend to take actions at face value, without considering the impact of the situation. And certainly, in New Orleans, people faced a situation like no other-and without knowing more about the nature of that situation we cannot draw accurate conclusions about the motives of the individuals in that setting. It may be that the situation created a state of deindividuation and normlessness-and that individuals took advantage of the situation to achieve their own selfish ends. When the story is finally told, however, it may be that norms emerged in the setting that sustained violent responses (a fight response), escape responses (a flight response), and supportive, helpful responses (tending and befriending responses).

Consequences of Disasters

Environmental disasters, like stressors in general, come in three variations: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. Some environmental hazards, such as hurricanes, are discrete and short-lived. They are, however, highly stressful for those involved. Studies of learned helplessness, for example, suggest that the individuals who were trapped in New Orleans after Katrina may have felt powerless to escape the situation. The unpredictable arrival of help, the negativity of the situation, and their lack of control over their outcomes must have, inevitably, caused a chain reaction of negative psychological aftereffects, including loss of motivation, change in life view, and depression. Even after the hurricane’s victims were rescued from death, they still faced days, months, and years of long-term recover. Such chronic stressors may me less negatively valenced, but their continual influence is gradually wearing. One comprehensive review of dozens of published studies of psychological reactions to disasters concluded that people who survive an accute stressor are more likely to suffer from anxiety, sleeplessness, and fearfulness. Such stressors also lead to small increases in drug use and depression among people exposed to a hazard. Between 7% and 40% of the survivors of disasters will exhibit some sign of psychopathology.

The aftereffects of environmental stress decrease gradually over time as individuals learn to cope with their situation. In some cases, however, people continue to experience aftereffects of an environmental hazard years after the experience. Individuals who experienced a tornado or a flood reported less and less stress in the months following the event, but even 16 months later stress levels remained abnormally high. Mothers living near the Three Mile Island power plant, 10 years after the accident, continued to worry about the effects of the radiation. Some evidence also suggests that women, in particular, suffer longer after a traumatic event as do people who try to hard to regain control of an uncontrollable event or become too focused on the event.

The stress caused by human-made disasters seems to be the particularly long-lasting. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornados, are traumatic, but they are unavoidable and unpredictable. Technological disasters, such as pollution or nuclear accidents, are equally damaging, yet their effects can’t always be clearly assessed since they take place over a longer period of time. Hence, individuals can cope with a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane, but they have a harder time adjusting when they discover their well water is contaminated by a nearby chemical waste dump. One study compared individuals who lived within a mile of a leaking waste dump, individuals whose homes had been flooded, and a control group. Even though the event had occurred 9 months before, individuals who had lived near the dump were far more distressed than individuals who had experienced a flood and control subjects. They had higher levels of anxiety, depression, physical complaints, and elevated levels of stress-related hormones in their systems (Baum et al., 1992).

People are, however, remarkably resilient. Even though such disasters as the Flu of 1918, the Chicago Fire, and San Francisco earthquake(s), and 9/11 took their toll, people responded in time as the coped with the disaster and overcame it. Indeed, some studies suggest that there is an element of truth to the notion that unfortunate events increase our resilience-that what does not kill us makes us stronger. Such events can, too, shield us from subsequent misfortunes and the strains of everyday life. For many months to come, whenever bad things happen to people in the city of New Orleans-from fights between husband and wife, to crime in the streets, to increases in alcoholism–residents can just shake their heads and blame it all on Katrina.

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