Why Some People Refuse to Evacuate

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Despite mandatory evacuations, many people refuse to evacuate natural disasters. Dr. Bilal Ghandour points to personalities and defensive mechanisms as two reasons why.

Despite mandatory evacuations of areas at risk of a hurricane hit, relatives and friends pleading to loved ones to leave a flood zone, we are now quite familiar with what happens: the large majority will leave and seek safer areas but, invariably, a small percentage of individuals refuse to evacuate.

Who are these people and what is their motivation?

Much of their decision-making process has to do with the structure of their personalities. At the core, they have the perception that leaving causes greater loss or risk than facing the potentially deadly wrath of the elements.

There is a misconception among many, including some who study psychology, that a major part of personality is dependent on one’s biological make-up. In fact, temperament is the correct term to describe one’s gene-based character.

Patterns of temperament can be observed from a very young age (as infants and toddlers) and are often used to describe traits such as calmness, high reactivity, slow to warm up, or anxious. Scientists studying animal behavior have also been able to note such temperaments in primates.

“A defense mechanism is a powerful system of reactions to stimuli that appear to be emotionally threatening.”

Our personalities, however, involve an almost entirely different mechanism. Although our developed personality may be linked to genetic makeup, the most important part of who we are is that which forms as the result of many environmental factors.

Our patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving is the result of a complex mechanism of interplay between lifelong experiences with close others and influences from our culturally determined background.

One of the most robust indications of personality type is the psychological defense mechanism one uses in response to a variety of situations.

A defense mechanism is a powerful system of reactions to stimuli that appear to be emotionally threatening. The purpose is to avoid feeling psychological pain at any cost.

There is one defense mechanism widely considered to be central and from which all others are derived from, repression. With repression, painful feelings are hidden from plain sight and left dormant in inaccessible parts of our memory.

Because we can hide our true feelings, one can use defense strategies, such as reaction formation (expressing the opposite of what one truly beliefs), regression (reverting to an early portion of childhood to feel safe) and denial, as one of the two personality organization at play in choosing to stay as waters rise to dangerous levels and winds tear houses down.

In denial, a person centers their lives on a chosen path that is narrowly constructed according to a belief system that feels safe. Patterns of behaviors are predictive, relationships are usually clearly defined, and life usually goes on with clear goals and expectations.

“Individual’s decision-making process has to do with the structure of their personalities.”

When the unexpected occurs one has to quickly react to the possibility this may result in having to change one’s perception of the world. One may equate accepting to leave a threatened home with the belief that the definition of self-needs to change as well.

When a person denies, it usually is to maintain a pattern of behavior that has been established firmly over the course of years.

Leaving hurts because it will require accepting adjustments and navigating new and unknown territories that may not match with one’s established and/or arbitrary definition of self. It is also quite likely that a mix of experiences that relate to what it means to be ‘strong’ means to never compromise.

If I deny the dangerous circumstances – such a person might reason – I will continue to feel strong, undefeated and, as a result, banish from awareness underlying weaknesses and continue to feel good about myself.

Another powerful defense mechanism is rationalization. In this strategy, a person comes up with all sorts of explanations to justify actions. The purpose of this defense is to show strength through logic and deny the emotions related to a particular situation.

One will ‘edit’ the risks by pointing to all sorts of reasons why the decision to stay put during a hurricane is justified. In these circumstances, the most common rationalization is the following: “I have lived through x hurricanes and have been fine. Past experience is the best predictor of future experience so I am safer by staying put.”

That is a dangerous way to reason because it will disregard factors relevant to changing one’s mind.

In his excellent book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb points to how a turkey grows increasingly confident he has a safe life since every new day ‘feels’ safer than the previous one. That is until the day before Thanksgiving.

In other words, having lived through 13 hurricanes does not make one any safer when that 14th one hits. But one can pretend to be protected in that manner because acknowledging the danger and leaving may be a sign of psychological defeat if it is perceived as revealing emotional weakness.

In other words, packing and leaving may expose a person to aspects of a self-kept secret – from ourselves and others – thus rendering them even more dangerous and threatening than hurricane winds.

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