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Why Won't People Take Timely, Decisive Steps to Prepare Themselves to Survive a Disaster--Whether Natural or Man-Made?

The information on this site can save and preserve your life and the lives of your family if implemented effectively. But, many visitors will read much of the applicable information, agree with it in their minds, but will take no action--even if they know a disaster event could statistically affect them at anytime right where they are living! It's truly an amazing psychological problem isn't it?

We explore some possible reasons here involving:

  • Pareto's Principle
  • Situational Awareness
  • Procrastination
  • Normalcy Bias
  • Black Swan Events

Pareto's Principle

An economist and historian that I read regularly is often frustrated by the same characteristic of his large international website audience even though these subscribers are a highly educated group of people. He subscribes this "inaction" on the part of his customer base to Pareto's Law. His experience has shown that only 20% of his customers will give a critical idea serious consideration and of these only 20% will actually do something materially. That's 4 out of a 100!

(Pareto's Law or Pareto's Principle is most widely known as the "80-20 rule". Some refer to it as the "the law of the vital few". Business management thinker, Joseph M. Juran, suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He next validated the concept in nature observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas!)[1]

Procrastination vs. Normalcy Bias vs. Situational Awareness

The question remains, why won't 80% of site visitors take preventive action even when faced with this critical information?

There are two psychological characteristics that are opposites of each other when it comes to proactive people vs. inactive people. The proactive people have a natural ability to accomplish situational awareness (SA)when faced with a known or predictable situation. For them, preparation is the key to lower stress and self-preservation.

Then we have those that truly believe in the need to get prepared and they do intend to prepare for a disaster or emergency at some point in the future, but they are procrastinators. Either they are too busy with what they feel are higher priority projects or they lose focus which causes them to forget about it for a time, putting action off until it is too late. Probably most of us fall into this camp! They will "monitor" a potential disaster situation and when it looks like it will become an event, they will move quickly to prepare.

Think of the folks that run to the lumber store to get ply board to put over their windows when a hurricane is eminent. Guess what? They have a lot of company and competition for ply board because too many other folks think the same way that they do. Most end up doing without since supplies of ply board and lumber are limited and businesses can't meet the demand surge.

However, at the opposite end of spectrum from SA types are people who are mentally and emotionally reluctant to take timely action when facing a possible dire situation. These folks suffer from a degree of what experts call normalcy bias.[2] Here are people, that even in the face of a pending disaster, will discount the facts and cling to a bogus opinion that everything will turn out alright and they will be fine. It's like a form of denial. The thought of a disaster coming upon them creates fear and to counter that fear they seem to repress it, choosing not to face it or deal with it for the moment. They tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way they can by grabbing onto any ambiguities they can to paint a less dangerous picture.

We are not suggesting that 80% of all people have complete normalcy bias but only that most people have some degree of it. True normalcy bias creates an extreme mental state within people when facing a potential disaster causing them to underestimate the possibility of the event occurring and the accompanying scenarios of resulting possibilities. They will fail to properly prepare for a disaster. And, if they survive, they become a great burden to those that did prepare because they will have difficulties dealing with the aftermath situations since they have never experienced them firsthand. Finally, because they didn't prepare when they had the time they will typically lack the required material resources to survive-they become a true public liability to all of those that did prepare and survive.

If you think you might have normalcy bias or some degree of it, you need to know that there actually is a psychological theory based on the way the brain processes new data. For example, it takes up to 10 seconds for the mind to process new information. If the incoming information creates stress, the mental speed slows even more. Then when the brain is unable to come up with a reasonable response to a given situation, it fixates on a single approach which is often incorrect. It's like the "deer in the headlights" situation which creates paralysis to act on the part of the deer.

The downside to this mental symptom of normalcy bias typically results in unnecessary death or severe injury when a disaster occurs because of inadequate shelter, supplies, and/or evacuation plans for the individual. And, even if someone helps them prepare before hand, they often refuse to leave their homes when it is required. In fact, some post-disaster studies show that statistically, 70% of people will check with others before they themselves will evacuate, if at all.

Some historical examples of this:

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Government at a levels and many residents refused to believe that the New Orleans' levees could fail and create a huge flood. Additionally, the governments were at a loss in trying to get many residents to leave when the situation became critical. Many people died and many more suffered greatly.

Mt. St. Helen's Volcanic Eruption in 1980

Over 60 people refused to leave or stay out of the area and died from a variety of causes-volcanic ash suffocation primarily. One individual in particular comes to mind, a Mr. Truman. He had lived on the mountain for years and defiantly refused to leave when advised to do so in the last hours before the eruption.

Situational Awareness

The most widely accepted definition of Situation Awareness (SA) is the following: "The perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.[3]

It involves awareness of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future.[4]

Additional, useful SA definitions proposed and used by others that apply to this site's purpose:

  • The combining of new information with existing knowledge in working memory and the development of a composite picture of the situation along with projections of future status and subsequent decisions as to appropriate courses of action to take" [5]
  • The continuous extraction of environmental information along with integration of this information with previous knowledge to form a coherent mental picture, and the end use of that mental picture in directing further perception and anticipating future need".[6]
  • The ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations as well as terrain".[7]
  • SA is simply "knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do" [8]
  • What you need to know not to be surprised" [9]
  • The term SA "is a shorthand description for "keeping track of what is going on around you in a complex, dynamic environment"[10].

People that develop Situational Awareness are completely opposite of those folks suffering from Normalcy Bias as discussed in detail above. They tend to be alert about situations involving them either directly or indirectly at many different levels. They are fighters and survivors and are proactive.

These kinds of people have what is recognized as "resiliency" of character which is the ability to anticipate, avoid, withstand, minimize, and recover from the effects of adversity, whether manmade or natural under all circumstances of use.

Although a recent term, SA, has its history identified in military theory and, in fact, is recognizable in Su Tzu's Art of War. More recently, it became a useful concept for the U.S. Air Force and the pilots returning from Korea and Vietnam.

Today, SA has become a type of operations science. It is evolving and being used in many diverse situations today. On this site, in context of disaster survival, we apply it to 4% that are identified by Pareto's Law regarding those visitors that take concrete action based on our supplied disaster information.

The table above encapsulates both the short and long-term aspects of SA.

The objective is split out into short-term tactical, long-term strategic, and longer-term science. Phases at the three levels of analysis involve process and outcome.

For example, before you can develop a short-term vision or situation awareness about a potential danger, you must make an assessment about the situation.

For the long-term, strategic situations, the process involves sense-making or a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections among people, places, and events to anticipate correctly their trajectories and act effectively.

Whereas SA is forward focused, sense making is backward looking, projecting what is likely to happen in order to develop informed, effective decisions. The longer-term objectives may span years of planning where knowledge is assimilated, modeled, and prediction of outcomes are established.

The theoretical model as proposed by Dr. Mica Endsley (1195b) has three stages of SA formation: Perception, comprehension, and projection. These basically are defined as:

Perception: Perceived status, attributes and dynamic of relevant environmental elements.

Comprehension: Synthesis of disjointed elements through the processes of pattern recognition, interpretation, and evaluation.

Projection: Involves the ability to project the future actions of the elements in the environment often based on historical patterns in the past and statistical facts.

Here is another perspective on Situational Awareness from Stratfor an intelligence reporting agency with both academic and military perspectives and experience.

Another Perspective on Situational Awareness

Black Swan Theory

Unfortunately, we have an issue with using historical statistical models if we have never had a situation like it before. This leads us to the facet of unpredictable, unknown futures because of a lack of existing historical references or models.

Most statisticians have not been too bothered by this anomaly in the past. (Think of the recent banking crises (2006-2010) which resulted from the failure of poor risk analysis models). Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his best seller book, "Black Swan Theory", discusses the real limitations of predicting outcomes when we have no relevant history.

In his book, Nassim Taleb, classifies such issues as:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology,
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to their very nature of small probabilities) and
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

For example, Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans" - undirected and unpredicted. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events.

I would have to agree with him. When I worked for a major credit card company, I was involved with a strategic team to look at leading information technology 10 years out. The company was world famous for using information technology for competitive advantage. Once we examined everything on the globe and built our 10 year architecture plan-the internet arrived! We didn't see it coming-not even a clue. Even after the internet became a reality, the firm had a hard time seeing how to leverage the technology. However, once the executives "got it" they moved quickly to embrace it with a lot of money.

Based on the Taleb's criteria: a Black Swan event has these attributes:

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major impact.
  3. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight, as if it had been expected.

In the case of man-made and natural disasters their predictability typically falls far short in terms of timing and accuracy. Mankind tends to be getting better with predicting natural disasters but with man-made disasters; the variables are too numerous. For example, think about the potential fiscal defaults of various kinds and levels of governments. Never before in global history has the world been faced with so many issues of financial devastation both in breadth and depth. We really have no historical reference or precedence on what to do next. It is a crap shoot.

Unfortunately, certain realities are known by governments and economists but solutions are highly diverse and numerous. One reality is that we in the U.S., cannot grow our GDP fast enough to get out of this financial quagmire that we are in even if everyone were to be taxed 100% of their income!!

So what strategy do people need to use to prepare for the coming financial disasters? It is predicted as coming event by many Austrian economists according to their theories. It is just a matter of time.

The main idea in Taleb's book is NOT to attempt to predict Black Swan Events, but to build robustness against negative ones that might occur and be able to exploit positive ones when they do occur. For example, he contends that banks and trading firms are very vulnerable to hazardous Black Swan Events and are exposed to losses beyond that predicted by their defective risk models.

Which leaves us with the situation where some of the coming disasters are man-made and we really don't know quite how to mediate them at a macro level but at the individual or micro level we must plan to meet these issues head-on to successfully survive. I predict that only 4% (20% or 20%) of the visitors reading this will decide that they will begin or are already monitoring events using appropriate contrarian experts to educate, guide, advise, and alert them on how to prepare for the worst financial situation this world has yet to see. Unfortunately, probably 96% of the visitors will take the attitude of disbelief and discount the potential reality because:

  1. Something like this has never happened before, so it can't happen now. (Think Noah and his Ark-what a Black Swan event!)
  2. Of blind faith in governments and people that something will turn up and everything will be fine-don't sweat it.

I hope these visitors will fight their NORMALCY BIAS and PROCRASTATION, develop their SITUATIONAL AWARENESS, realizing that BLACK SWAN EVENTS are always happening and when they do, they are very sudden. Please, be robustly prepared.

And, remember, if you are prepared and nothing happens, you will have lost nothing but some time and perhaps some resources that can be reallocated back to their intended purpose if need be. If you are not prepared and something happens, your life and future are at enormous risk. My wife's great grandmother made the mistake of coming to America during WWI and returned back to Germany because she felt she was needed there. She died from starvation.


[1] Wikipedia-Pareto Principle--

[2] Wikipedia-Normalcy Bias--

[3] Dr. Endsley's definition of Situational Awareness, Endsley, M.R. (1995b). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors 37(1), 32-64.

[4] Hartel, Smith, & Prince, 1991; Merket, Bergondy, & Cuevas-Mesa, 1997; Nullmeyer, Stella, Montijo, & Harden, 2005).

[5] Fracker, M.L. (1991b). Measures of situation awareness: Review and future directions (Report No. AL-TR-1991-0128). Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH: Armstrong Laboratories.

[6] Dominguez, C., Vidulich, M., Vogel, E. & McMillan, G. (1994). Situation awareness: Papers and annotated bibliography. Armstrong Laboratory, Human System Center, ref. AL/CF-TR-1994-0085.

[7] Dostal, B.C. (2007). Enhancing situational understanding through the employment of unmanned aerial vehicles. Army Transformation Taking Shape ...Interim Brigade Combat Team Newsletter, No. 01-18. Retrieved November 7, 2007, from

[8] Adam, E.C. (1993). Fighter cockpits of the future. Proceedings of 12th IEEE/AIAA Digital Avionics Systems Conference (DASC), 318-323.

[9] Jeannot, E., Kelly, C. & Thompson, D. (2003). The development of situation awareness measures in ATM systems. Brussels: Eurocontrol.

[10] Moray, N. (2004). Ou sont les neiges d'antan? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?"). In D.A. Vincenzi, M. Mouloua & P.A. Hancock (Eds), Human performance, situation awareness and automation: Current research and trends (pp. 1-31). Mahwah: LEA.

Situation Awareness was sourced from Wikipedia.org--


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