USA — Why do people live in places like southern California where homesintermingle with wooded areas and the risk of wildfire is so great? Leadingsocial scientists have a surprising answer: because the emotional benefitsinterfere with their ability to assess the risks.
Recent fire activity in the state of California supports this unusual theoryoffered by researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).According to the U.S. Forest Service, October wildfires destroyed 2,000 homes,forced the evacuation of more than 1 million residents and resulted in sevenfatalities.
“It’s likely that people who live near heavily wooded areas inCalifornia focus on things they love about their location, like environmentalbeauty or proximity to the ocean, and simultaneously discount the risk ofwildfire,” said Jacqueline Meszaros, program director for decision, riskand management sciences at NSF.
Researchers found people link perceived risk and perceived benefit toemotional evaluations of a potential hazard. If people like an activity, theyjudge the risks as low. If people dislike an activity, they judge the risks ashigh. For example, people buy houses or cars they like and find emotionallyattractive, then downplay risks associated with the purchase.
This may explain why people sometimes make seemingly irrational, high-riskdecisions, such as settling along the coastline where there is greatervulnerability to earthquakes and hurricanes.
“One of the exciting things in the current generation of research isthat emotional components of risk decisions are beginning to be understood inaddition to other more established components,” said Meszaros. “Turnsout that emotions explain a fair amount of what surprises us about people andrisks.”
People also make decisions about risk based on how they feel about availableinformation concerning a hazard. Interestingly, there was a great deal ofinformation available about California wildfires before the events of October. AJuly 2007 study on California housing and wildland fires by researchers at theU.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and two U.S. Universities warnedof possible problems.
The study found California has a large number of homes in or near highlywooded areas, has a high number of human-caused fires and has some of the mostsevere fire weather in the country. It also found most Californians live atlower elevations dominated by chaparral surveillances susceptible to frequent,high-intensity, crown fires.
“It’s hard to say whether people knew of these findings, and if thefindings figured into decisions about living in the area,” said Meszaros.”But even if they had read the facts, we have a number of findings thatsuggest facts alone often are not enough to change peoples’ perceptions of risks.People need to relate to those facts at an emotional level for risk judgments tobe affected.”
Providing “vivid information” about fire risks that engagesemotional functions, not just rational ones, people theoretically would judgethe risk of living near thickly wooded areas as higher. This could reduceserious public policy problems that result from emotional biases in riskperception and decision making.
Using the theory for certain types of risk communication might be importantfor city planners, who are considering allowing people to build in an area wherethere is a known risk. But not much is known yet about the dangers of presentingpeople with highly vivid information.
More is known about the conditions that lead people to discount vividinformation and distrust the sender. For example, studies of fear appeals–suchas certain anti-smoking advertising–suggests that some vivid messages can leadto undesirable responses. Certain fear messages may actually have led to morekids smoking.
Meszaros said scientists cannot forecast how many Californians are likely torebuild in the same locations. She said scientists need better social andeconomic asset databases to test theories about things like disaster resilience,vulnerability and resettlement.