Why Do Some People Ignore Severe Weather Warnings?

Scientists explain why some people ignore extreme weather warnings and some people listen.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- When severe weather is in the forecast, what makes you decide to act on or disregard the warning? Social psychologists are studying what makes people take action or ignore warnings during severe weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms and wildfires.

“Over the course of my life, I’ve actually been exposed to quite a number of severe weather natural disasters. So I’ve always actually been really interested in natural disasters and how people respond to that and what they choose to do during those situations. My dissertation is aimed at examining why people choose to protect themselves, or not, during severe weather events.

“So, the values that you hold to be important -- how that influences what you choose to do or choose not to do -- and then also your expectations. So people’s expectations about what they can physically do, right? Maybe people don't evacuate because they don't think they can. People don't take shelter because they don't know how,” said Cassandra Shivers-Williams at Howard University.

Shivers-Williams learned that deciding whether to heed warnings or not wasn’t just about physical abilities; there is also an emotional element.

“I was actually really surprised at that, that there was such a strong sense of family and community obligation, and that actually would keep people from making some self-protective decisions. When you look at some of the studies that have been published about why or why not people didn’t leave New Orleans after Katrina, a lot of that qualitative data suggests, ‘Well, if I leave, who is going to take care of my neighbor? Because this person is elderly, or this person is disabled, or this person needs medication. And they can’t leave. So, I’m not going to leave because if I leave there’s no chance for this person,’” said Shivers-Williams.

People’s decisions also changed depending on the severe weather event.

“The things that would keep people from evacuating in a hurricane situation are not necessarily the same things that would keep people from taking shelter during a tornado, and they’re not necessarily the same things that would keep people from evacuating during a wildfire,” said Shivers-Williams.

She also learned that no matter what kind of severe weather was approaching, people shared common reasons for not packing up and leaving.

“But when you look across these situations, there are common themes that come up, like logistical issues. People don’t protect themselves because they don’t have the funds to leave, or they don’t have transportation, or they don’t have anywhere to go. There is this affective component or moral dilemmas. People feel bad about prioritizing their own safety over that of other people.

“And then the third common theme was this sense of obligation to friends and family. That was a really big indicator of, ‘Well, I can’t leave other people behind. I can’t leave my friends; I can’t do this in good faith knowing that other people I know and I love need my help on this,’” concluded Shivers-Williams.

One thing is for certain -- most researchers urge everyone to listen to warnings to stay safe during any kind of severe weather.

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Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.