Why did the government machinery ignore warnings about the impending Cyclone Ockhi?

Mathew Broderick, chief of the Homeland Security Operations Centre in the US, went home peacefully on the night of 29 August 2005 after reporting that the levees were holding up against Hurricane Katrina. This he did despite receiving multiple reports of breaches. Why do even the informed behave irrationally in risky situations?

The villagers of Puthuvype, near Kochi, have been protesting against the construction of a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) terminal in their village. They fear the gas storage tanks could become a huge safety hazard. Why?

Risk management is a very complicated task. In some cases, like a potential cyclone, one needs to increase the level of risk perception of all those involved. On the other hand, in the case of LPG terminals, one needs to reduce the risk perception.

Many policymakers believe that risk management ends with building the right infrastructure to deal with a risk. Safety engineering is the essential starting point of all risk management programmes. But the last mile involves managing people’s perception of risk.

Risk of any kind involves large levels of uncertainties. A large number of biases inundate the human brain in times of uncertainty, and influence how a person feels about a risk. And how one feels about a risk is just as significant as the risk itself.

The optimism bias makes sure that almost always, most of us believe that it won’t happen to us. If the risk in question does not easily come to mind, we tend not to be concerned about it. Because our behaviours are influenced by the availability heuristic; the less readily something comes to our mind, the less the chance that we will be concerned about it. So with no history of a cyclone in the month of December, the authorities did not give enough importance to the weather warning before Cyclone Ockhi. This also explains the behaviour of Broderick on the night before Hurricane Katrina.

Studies show that the annual risk of living near a nuclear plant is equivalent to the risk of riding an extra 5km in an automobile. But why is there so much concern about the safety of nuclear plants? Cataclysmic risks that are hard to detect with our sensory system make people more confused about the risk from those sources. An unknown risk is always scarier.

People are more willing to accept risk that they voluntarily take on, because they tend to assume that they have control over it. So, people tend to reduce the judgement of risk of driving a car. In contrast, they tend to judge the LPG terminal as far more risky. Situations with no perceived control are always perceived as riskier.

No doubt, understanding risk perceptions of humans and guiding their actions towards a safe environment is no easy task. Where does one begin?

A critical aspect of any risk management programme is scenario planning. Authorities responsible for managing risk should have discussed in detail the worst possible risk they could face, the possible steps that will be taken during that eventuality, and identified those who will be responsible for each of those activities. Such an exercise will help estimate the inadequacies of the existing system and negate the optimism bias.

New York authorities did not predict that terrorists would use two commercial planes to cause wanton destruction in their city. But the city was prepared for terrorists sending poisonous gas into its subway system. Armed with plans for this scenario, within a few minutes of the second plane hitting the twin tower, city officials knew what they needed to do.

Most large accidents are rare incidents that catch most people by surprise. But every city, every organization should have a few people for whom no eventuality should be a surprise. These people should walk into their office believing ‘today is that day’. Hundreds of incident-free days should not push them into a slumber of complacency; these paranoid few will make sure the vast majority of us go about our lives without a worry.

Today most risk communication is from a rational perspective, and is all about informing people about a risk. Studies have shown that risk warnings designed from an emotional perspective, presented in the form of vivid, emotional scenarios and anecdotes, are far more effective. Good risk communication should make one ‘feel’ the risk.

Talking about safety features is not going to allay the fears of people who see a project as a safety hazard. And every time a safety feature communication arrives, it also activates the systems of the brain involved in detecting risk.

The best way to allay fears about the safety of a project is to make the benefits of the project more salient. People continue to drive automobiles, despite the large number of accidents, because they are aware of the benefits of travelling in an automobile. The news about mobile phones causing cancer did not affect the usage of mobile phones because its benefits outstrip the possible risk. The best way to allay the fears of those protesting against a nuclear plant or an LPG plant is to communicate the large benefits that will accrue to them thanks to these projects.

Times of risk bring out some of the highest complexities of human behaviour. The more we understand those complexities, the better we will manage the next disaster that we face.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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