Studies show preponderance of myths and exaggerations among everyday citizens
In predicting situations with many unknowns, such as catastrophes and disasters, we naturally rely on two major influence categories: theory and experience. I would also add a third, lesser category, which nonetheless influences us, especially in the subconscious mind: fantasy.
Studies at the turn of the millennium have repeatedly shown that, through dramatic exaggeration in cinema and cynical sensationalism in news media, the average citizen has gained a warped sense of how his/her fellows will behave during and after a disaster.
In 2006, the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network (CRHNet) released a compendium of research, the sum of which reveals a startling tendency among study subjects of many backgrounds and locales to wildly overestimate the selfish, unethical, and criminal actions of other people in a catastrophic event. They will likely loot, they say. “They will take advantage of the poor, probably.” The number of crimes committed will generally rise, the majority of those surveyed asserts.
This all would be fine and good, except for the fact that other studies, of actual human behavior in the midst of disaster, show that the predictions of the general populace are generally wrong, wrong, and wrong again. The disparity is important, as the CRHNet points out, because “In order to respond to a disaster effectively, it is imperative that you understand people’s misperceptions about human behavior.”
A valuable understanding begins with knowing how our sources of information work.
Movies, even fictional ones, affect our ideas about how people respond to disasters. In order to make an impact on moviegoers (and thus at the box office), producers look for elements of drama, conflict, explosive action, and clear delineations between the “good guys and bad guys.” If real life were filled with all of that, there’d be no audience at all for films like Deep Impact and The Book of Eli. While enjoying these escapes from reality, we ought to make a mental note to check the effects on our subconscious and compare these to the results of scientific research.
The world of journalism is highly competitive and, for the most part, producers there look for the very same elements as movie producers. This may seem unethical, but it is the reality of what “news” outlets consider “giving the people what they want.” Only a few news sources in the U.S. can be relied upon to provide in-depth coverage without sensationalism.
What these, more ethical, outlets report is similar to the results of the various studies in the CRHNet report: selfless, community-minded, helpful, and neighborly behaviors are much more common than most of us expect. Some who were designated “looters” on national television after Hurricane Katrina later were discovered to be collecting items from debris in order to return them to their rightful owners. Let’s remember that altruism runs deep among us, though most media might not consider it a “sexy” topic.
My upcoming novel, ULTIMATE ERROR, is about human behavior before, during, and after a global catastrophe.