As Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy were bearing down on the South and East Coasts of the United States, respectively, in the summer and fall of 2012, Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer and his research team took to the phone lines to survey people in the storms’ crosshairs about what they perceived the greatest threats to be, and how they were preparing to face them.

Through this and several other studies, Meyer — who is also co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center — and his colleagues find that most people fail to adequately understand the threats they face as a result of natural and other disasters, and often those poor “mental models” lead to insufficient preparation. The findings are outlined in “The Dynamics of Hurricane Risk Perception: Real Time Evidence from the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season,” by Meyer, Jay Baker of Florida State University, Kenneth Broad of the University of Miami and Ben Orlove of Columbia University, which will appear in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association; “Dynamic Simulation as an Approach to Understanding Hurricane Risk Response: Insights from the Stormview Lab,” by Meyer, Broad, Orlove and Nada Petrovic of Columbia, which appeared in Risk Analysis, and Meyer’s article, “Why We Fail to Learn from Disasters,” which appeared in the book, The Irrational Economist: Overcoming Irrational Decisions in a Dangerous World.

In an interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Meyer discusses these findings and offers several suggestions for changing the way both authorities and private citizens think about, and react to, such hazards. He also identifies the next great challenge facing the risk management world — climate change.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

On the three biases that impact disaster preparation:

A lot of the work that I do and a lot of the work that we do at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center involves how people make decisions to prepare for hazards — whether it’s an earthquake or a hurricane or, for example, a possible terrorist attack and so forth. And a lot of the work that I’ve done is focused on figuring out why people often make mistakes when making these preparations.

[Often] when we have disasters, people come in after the fact and say, “Well, if they had only done this” or “Why did people leave their cars in a flood zone when they were given all these warnings that floods were going to come in?” Basically, what we found over a number of years and using a combination of field surveys and working with people in laboratories, is that effectively, people are subject to three major biases. One is, simply put, that there is a tendency to under-appreciate the future or under-consider the future, or future consequences. A second thing is that people are too quick to forget the past, or too slow to remember the negative events that have happened in the past. The third one is that if in doubt, what often happens is that people will follow the advice of other people who are no less prone to those sorts of mistakes than they are.

“Only 23% of people who were located right along the immediate coast — the people who were most in harm’s way from Sandy — made plans for what they would do if they had to evacuate.”

On the causes (and consequences) of “bad mental models”:

We’re really interested in studying why people make these mistakes. Why is it that they don’t consider the future enough? Why is it that they too quickly forget the past? And why is it they just turn to other people if in doubt? The main thing that we find is that often, for a lot of hazards, people have really bad mental models of how things are going to unfold.

For example, if a hurricane is coming, in order for you to make a decision about how to prepare for it, how many packs of batteries to get, or even whether or not you should evacuate, what you have to do is mentally reconstruct how this is event going to unfold. For example: How high is the water going to get? When the wind comes, how strong will it be? And what is it going to do to my house? Then people have to mentally simulate how this thing is going to unfold — and then, based on that, make a decision about the right preparations, such as estimating how many days they are going to need to be prepared for possibly being without power.

People often have very bad mental models, so they do that process very poorly. What they think is going to happen is often very different from what actually does happen. One of the things we found out from surveys we did of [people impacted by] Hurricane Sandy was when it was approaching the East Coast, people grossly underestimated a couple of things — one of which is how long the after-effects of the storm were going to be.

Often in media coverage of such events, you would [hear], “Well, a hurricane is coming, a hurricane is coming tonight,” and people draw from that [and think] the thing that they have to worry about is getting through the night. They have these images of sitting in their homes and winds swirling all around, the roof blowing off and so forth. In the case of Sandy that was never really in the cards for most people. What was in the cards, particularly for people living inland, was [potentially] being without power for two weeks. And in that particular case, people were all set to survive the night — they had enough beer and they had enough pizza and they had enough snacks to get them through the storm event, but they weren’t really prepared for the two weeks afterward.

[Before the storm hit,] we asked people, “Do you have plans for where you would go if you have to evacuate?” We found out that only 23% of people who were located right along the immediate coast — the people who were most in harm’s way from Sandy — made plans for what they would do if they had to evacuate.

On the dangers of water vs. wind:

One of the conclusions that we made from a lot of the Sandy work, for example, was just underscoring how bad people’s mental models were. People who lived right along the coast really underestimated the impacts that they had to worry about.

What they should have been worried about was floods, or water damage, not necessarily wind damage…. In some sense, flooding is the thing that kills people in hurricanes, not wind. Flooding is worse. Yet, when we talked to people [during Sandy] who lived as close as one half block from the water and asked them, “What are you most worried about?” what they said is, “Wind, I’m worried about wind” — when in fact, water was the thing that they really had to worry about. And in fact, most of the deaths in New York City [as a result of Sandy] were due to people drowning from floods, and something like 250,000 cars were lost due to flooding. These were all avoidable losses; people simply had to move inland a little bit; people just had to move their cars to higher ground.

But if you’re thinking that what you should worry about is wind, the proper thing to do is stay where you are. There is an adage in hurricane preparation that you should flee from water and hide against the wind. The idea is that you should shelter in place, given a windstorm. So, what people were doing was sort of correct — if you think that wind is the one thing you have to worry about, you shouldn’t leave. You should stay in your home, not go anywhere and keep your car right there. But what they were really facing was a big flood or a water disaster and they were prepared completely for the wrong thing. What they should have done is left, but they stayed.

On helping people better prepare for risks:

The basic problem is how do you get people to have a better mental model, or to be able to better mentally simulate what’s going to happen to them so that they can line up what’s going to happen to them with how they’re going to prepare for it. Right now, the real problem is that people aren’t getting very specific information about what is going to happen to them at their house.

When hurricanes approach, people tend to sit down and watch television — even people who normally spend a lot of time on the Internet and get all of their information from Twitter feeds and Facebook. They watch the Weather Channel, they watch CNN, and what they’re getting is a very monolithic view of what is going to happen during the storm. In particular, if you’re living in coastal New Jersey, you will see a broadcaster sitting in Central Park in New York, or the Battery in New York — so you’re not getting a real clear sense as to what’s happening to you, personally.

“If you’ve been living in a place for a long time and you’ve never seen rising water, the idea that your house might be underwater someday is very, very difficult to imagine.”

One of the challenges is — and I know that the National Hurricane Center … is trying to [address] this — is finding ways of communicating to people at specific locations the actual experience that they are going to get. Another challenge, which is also really tough to overcome, is how to get people to appreciate the threat that water poses. We find that people tend not to buy flood insurance — even people that live in a flood area don’t buy it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a real tough time trying to convince people to buy flood insurance because it’s something that they have a difficult time imagining. If you’ve been living in a place for a long time and you’ve never seen rising water, the idea that your house might be underwater someday is very, very difficult to imagine.

Usually, when we talk about hurricanes, you naturally think of a wind storm, and in fact, the National Hurricane Center grades the severity of storms based on category, and the category is tied to wind speed. So when people think of hurricanes, they naturally think hurricanes mean wind, and they don’t really think much about water effects. One of the real challenges is how do you get that across to people and how do you try to correct for that? For example, a lot of the forecasts will say something like, “When this storm comes in, there could be a ten foot storm surge.” But, then you have to ask — how many people know how high up over sea level their house is? No one knows that. It’s hard to make the connection between that and what their personal impacts are going to be. One of the things to do … is try to de-emphasize in forecasts the tension that is given to the damage that is caused by wind, and really focus a whole lot more on the personal damage that can happen through flooding.

When people are unsure of what to do in a situation and they don’t know which of several actions to take, often they fall back to what psychologists call “default biases” — that is, if you don’t know what to do, just do the thing that is easiest, or the thing that you’re used to doing. If you think about it in the context of preparations, the default bias is to do nothing. It’s just to stay at home; it’s not to go out and buy extra supplies and things like that.

Often people worry about what happens if they take precautions and nothing happens. If [authorities] say I should fill up my whole house with water, and I should get five cases of water to last me for two weeks, people are thinking, “Well, how long am I going to be without water? They tell me two weeks, but it could be two days, and I remember a time in the past when the storm came in and nothing happened.” And after a while, you just can’t make a decision, and people end up doing nothing. So another of the possibilities is to think about ways of making preparation or taking precautions to be the default action rather than the effortful action.

For example, one of my colleagues at the Risk Center is advocating that one way to make sure people renew their flood insurance is that when someone buys a home in a flood-prone area, make insurance part of the mortgage. That way, every year, you naturally have to renew it — it’s not a decision you have to consciously make. One idea that I’ve had is that as part of your property taxes in a given year, you automatically pay for a hurricane protection kit. In hurricane prone areas, the community would come by and drop off a protection kit for you, and they will give you your money back if you don’t want it. Therefore, you have to consciously think — rather than the default being whether to take action, the default is whether to not take action, and I think that people are more inclined to safety under that circumstance.

On why our ‘mental models’ don’t just fail us during hurricanes:

Though much of our work tends to be focused on hurricane preparation, a lot of the biases that we observe in the context of why people make mistakes preparing for hurricanes are really observed in a wide variety of other contexts.

For example, consider protection against terrorism. There is a great image going back to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — there is a famous picture of Mohamed Atta walking by security at the … airport, and you see … an attendant who is at the counter basically letting this person go through. It epitomizes one of the real problems in trying to prepare for events that happen with very, very low frequency, but, when they do happen, have incredibly dramatic consequences: Most of the time, we’re reinforced for not doing anything. The number of times we’re taking a lot of effortful action to protect against something, the number of times that you are ever actually going to encounter a disaster is very, very rare. For example, for someone who is an airport screener, how often do they actually see a terrorist coming through? It almost never happens.

We learn by trial and error; when you put out a little effort to work harder, think harder, put up more protection and prepare for a storm, or become more vigilant against a possible terrorist attack, most of the time, it’s not going to be rewarded. Most of the time, it’s going to be effort for nothing. And that is often why people, for instance, will cancel their flood insurance. Most of the time when they buy flood insurance, they write out a big check for it, and there is no flood. The next year, they write out another big check — and, again, no flood. All of a sudden, they’re thinking, “Wow, I could have used that money to buy a good TV … and I’m wasting it on flood insurance.” After Hurricane Katrina, which was very vivid in the press in terms of all the flooding that happened in New Orleans, there was a significant increase in the number of people nationwide who bought flood insurance. What was interesting is one year after Hurricane Katrina, all of a sudden a large proportion of those people cancelled their flood insurance because they didn’t see a reward associated with it. And that’s the type of thing that occurs all over the place.

Another bias that occurs is that people tend to suffer what psychologists call an “optimistic bias.” An optimistic bias means that you recognize that there is some hazard out there and there is a really good chance that it can occur, but the tendency is to think that when it does occur, the real harm is going to be to somebody else; it’s not going to be to you. I think every parent who has had their teenager start to drive has given them a stern warning, “Never text and drive.” But you kind of know that the teenager is going to — they understand what the dangers are, but there is an instinct that says, “Yeah, that’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to be the careful one; it’s going to happen to someone else.” Then, all of a sudden, you have an accident — and hopefully, it’s not a tragic consequence.

We see this robustly across a wide variety of different areas, for things like terrorist attacks and wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, you name the disaster. I think the research has also reinforced for me … how people learn the consequences of these things. They don’t learn them from things that have personally happened to them; they learn about them from seeing images of these things happening in other places. For example, when a hurricane is coming, or if I’m worried about an earthquake, I’ve never seen an earthquake at my house, but I’ve seen [news footage of] earthquakes in Chile; I’ve seen footage of a lot of earthquakes in China, and [I think] that’s where earthquakes occur. Therefore, I’m worried about earthquakes, but [I think] it’s not going to happen at my house. It’s going to be in the [San Francisco Bay] area; it’s going to happen in Chile; it’s going to happen in Japan or in China.

On the possibility of block-by-block forecasting:

I think we’re actually a lot closer to that than it might seem. Certainly, right now, there is high resolution satellite elevation data available, and block-by-block information that emergency planners do know — for example, if a tide was to come up to a certain level, they know what will happen at a particular house; they really have that information.

We have an awful lot of data like that. But one of the problems is how do you get that information to an individual in a way so that they could understand the personal relevance. Using apps and smartphone technology, I think that we’re not that far away from that. I think that often people may not respond to a generic message that says, “Everyone in West Philadelphia should do this,” because when you’re thinking, “Well, it’s not me in West Philadelphia; it’s this other person in West Philadelphia; their house is the one that is going be in danger.” But, on the other hand, if I get a message that basically says, “Robert Meyer, this is a dedicated message for you that this is what’s going to happen to your house at your particular address,” suddenly I can identify with that information a whole lot more and I understand it’s not a generic message, but it’s speaking to me directly.

On the importance of real-life examples and simulations:

I think the real challenge in trying to figure out how do you get better communication messages and how do you study how people make preparations for disasters is that there are not a lot of opportunities to study that in the real world. Fortunately, we’re not into a situation where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is going to run a controlled experiment of “Let’s not warn some people [about a disaster] and let’s warn some other people and see what happens.” We obviously can’t do that.

A research group that I’m involved in is developing very realistic simulations in which a person is put into a virtual living room and has the opportunity to turn on the television, check the web, or leave the house and talk to neighbors. The goal is that in the context of simulations, they can experience, for example, a virtual hurricane coming in over a period of time and they get to watch the news feeds as they change, all done hypothetically. The great thing about that is we can use that as a natural laboratory for testing how people’s decisions in this simulated environment would be altered if we gave them different kinds of messages. Or if the tone of the TV broadcast was a little bit different? Or what happens if the people that they talk to are experts vs. novices with respect to hurricanes?

“As hard as it is to get people to take actions, to prepare against immediate threats like hurricanes … getting people to see the benefits in taking protections against sea level rise or global warming is much, much harder.”

We can’t run these controlled experiments in the in the field. One of the natural reservations that you might have [about simulations] is that there is a real difference between sitting at a computer lab and responding to a hypothetical hurricane threat vs. actually experiencing a hurricane or experiencing a real earthquake. But, what we find surprisingly, is that the way in which people behave in these two environments is remarkably similar — that if you design these simulations realistically enough, all of people’s natural instincts for what they would do when these things happen in real life kick in.

For example, when we had the simulation where you were put into this virtual living room, our worry was that people would try things in the living room that they wouldn’t naturally do, just because it’s a simulation. What we found, however, was that in these hurricane simulations people tended to turn on the TV. And that’s exactly what they do in real life…. When we correlate the utilization of media in the simulation with the utilization in the field that we observe in our hurricane studies, there is a remarkable parallel. We see a lot of the same biases coming up in one or the other. So, that gives us a lot of optimism that, in fact, we can start testing of communication vehicles and so forth in the lab, which means hopefully, we can [eventually] take them into the real world. You gave the example of can we do better individual targeting of the impacts of disasters — one of the things we can do in our simulations is [participants in the studies] have a table that they can look at and there is a cell phone sitting on the table, and one of the things we can do is manipulate the type of message that appears on that cell phone.

On what comes next:

One of the things that we’re actually interested in lately, which is a front-burner item for a lot of people — not only for people in hazard preparation, but also for people in business is — is how to respond to climate change. Scientists are really uncertain as to how this will affect, for example, hurricane impacts, frequency of tornados and droughts and so forth. But I think there is a general feeling that things will be different in the future than they are now. And a lot of this mitigation against climate change is something that requires both individuals and communities to make very large, long-term investments in protection.

For example, New York City after Sandy is thinking about, “Well, what can we do to protect against sea level rise?” The problem with sea level rise is [that] in order to protect against it, you’re talking about not just putting up some sand bags, but major, multi-billion dollar investments in infrastructure, which is something that communities don’t like to do. And unfortunately, it’s the type of thing that when you look at [a government] budget in a given year, you say, “Well, we want to do it, we want to be safe, but in some sense, we don’t really have the money to do it this year. We’ll put it off to next year.” And then, next year becomes the year after and the next year becomes after that, and then, eventually, suddenly, there’s another Sandy that comes in, and there’s another flood.

One of the things we were interested in studying is how communities will adapt to climate change — in particular, sea level rise. And what are types of messages and types of things that you can do to get people to see the benefits of investments today against something that is really long-term — where in fact, you may never even see the benefits of [the investment] in your life-time. As hard as it is to get people to take actions, to prepare against immediate threats like hurricanes, as you might imagine, getting people to see the benefits in taking protections against sea level rise or global warming is much, much harder.