Thinking fast and slow about disaster preparedness

Book: Thinking, Fast and Slow Author: Daniel Kahneman

Getting back to my notes from “Thinking Fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman, I am still amazed by the diversity of new insights the book provides on how (most) humans think .

Some findings are also relevant for the current thinking in humanitarian assistance on disaster risk reduction (D.R.R. for the incrowd): an important part of the book is dedicated to the human approach to risk, which is not in line with statistical analysis nor economical reasoning.

When talking about risks, the greatest risk seem to be a disaster with a huge humanitarian impact. The book deals specifically with the approach to catastrophic risk by humans, in contrast to the Homo economicus or the statistician. As the political agenda of the humanitarian sector moves towards more investment and more attention to disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness it might be good to look at his insights. I will heavily rely on quotes from the book.

Humans tend to be very bad at estimating risks and probabilities. We make decisions based on stories, not on a balanced analysis.

“ We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.”

“ Many facts of the world are due to chance, including accidents of sampling. Causal explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong.”

When working in Humanitarian assistance, your mandate is to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain dignity when the local government is unable or unwilling to act or is overwhelmed. Roughly 80 % of the work will be in complex crises, the crises that are caused mostly by human interaction, like civil war, usually exacerbated by some bad luck on the side of the natural causes. However, it is the big natural disasters, giant floods or tsunamis and earthquakes that catch the imagination. Within the natural catastrophes, there is a rise in small disasters, with a limited number of victims, that is passing mostly under the radar. DRR is in the first place aimed at these 20 % of the investments, as we do now how to prevent natural disasters to become human catastrophes, but do not really know how to prevent civil war.

As humanitarians, we are tempted to argue that you will save more lives by preventing the catastrophes, and so it might be within our mandate after all. But are we sure of this? The question Kahneman asks is: will humanitarians be the right people to judge the importance of investments on disaster risk reduction compared to other priorities for the society (such as the army, education, etc.)

When you do not ignore the very rare events, you will certainly overweigh them.

The humanitarians are focused exactly on the very rare events and it is their explicit job to advocate for increased attention on these rare events. But what happens when we manage to put a risk squarely on the agenda? Some quotes picture a scenario with ever increasing importance to DRR:

Your judgment of probability was ultimately determined by the cognitive ease, or fluency, with which a plausible scenario came to mind. (Disaster risk reduction seems very plausible just after a catastrophe)

Adding irrelevant but vivid details to a monetary outcome also disrupts calculation.(The figures on the risk are intermingled with media pictures of the human suffering during the catastrophe)

The work of disaster prevention is more complicated by the human approach to “worry” and “regret” :

Reducing or mitigating the risk is not adequate; to eliminate the worry the probability must be brought down to zero.

Here again, people buy more than protection against an unlikely disaster; they eliminate a worry and purchase peace of mind.

So how to go about deciding on the importance of risk reduction within the complete spectrum of priorities?

The dilemma between intensely loss-averse moral attitudes and efficient risk management does not have a simple and compelling solution.

Especially just after there was a disaster or a near disaster:

The typical short-term reaction to bad news is increased loss aversion.
The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget.

There is an important risk of overinvestment in disaster risk reduction, leading to a framework that is just not affordable for the country:

The intense aversion to trading increased risk for some other advantage plays out on a grand scale in the laws and regulations governing risk.

Perhaps the humanitarian sector should see themselves just as one actor with a set of specific skills: humanitarian action, perhaps statistics on probabilities and risk analysis. As an inside actor they might be badly placed to take multiple roles and study, plan and finance the DRR approach:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

Because as humanitarians we always think about disasters, we are not the best judges when it concerns the allocation of the scarce resources of partner governments or partner communities to DRR. A more humble approach, where the humanitarians leave the planning explicitly to the local partners and only add some seed money and knowledge might be indicated. The world is always risky for the poor, even when there is no disaster: illness, unemployment, accidents, land loss, localized weather phenomena, can be higher on the agenda of the poor family than well known disaster risk.

In summary:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

This is also a stark warning for the humanitarian community to keep full attention to the core mandate of saving lives when governments are unable to act. For the moment a lot of the attention is drawn towards DRR away from access, Humanitarian Law and humanitarian delivery to everybody in need. It might be necessary to pay attention to DRR, but it is sure that the focus on it by the humanitarian community has negative effects for the core mandate, as the most scarce resource in humanitarian action is management attention. Is DRR really worth it? It seems to me that this is a political question that should be answered by the local communities, and not by external humanitarian actors.

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