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New Study Says “Individualistic” Americans May Be Too Optimistic About Disaster Risk Vs. Others In “Interdependent” Cultures Such As In Asia — Does That Explain Lack Of Preparedness?

August 14th, 2010 · No Comments

A new study  says “individualistic” Americans may be too optimistic about the risk of disasters, including terrorism, as opposed to more “interdependent” cultures such as in Asia. The report argues that the perception of disaster risk is influenced by culture more than experience.

It may help explain why many Americans still do not prepare for disasters (and, by contrast, Japan and China hold special disaster preparedness days for its citizens). It also may underscore the challenge — as well as the need — of building community preparedness in the U.S.

According to the study reported on the Emerging Health Threats Forum website:

People from different parts of the world rate differently their risk of dying or getting injured in a disaster, and this has more to do with cultural factors than actual exposure to an event, suggests research published online in Risk Analysis. It also indicates that people across cultures share a belief that they are less prone to harm than others around them…

Unlike risk assessment, which is based on objective information, risk perception tends to rely on a person’s psychological state, personal experience and socio-cultural factors. Cultural values influence which hazards are believed to be relevant to a group, the authors explain. “Members of a group construct shared meanings to explain the reasons behind hazardous events to promote a sense of stability and allegiance within the group.”

Researchers measured and compared risk perceptions between 365 mental health workers from Japan, Argentina, and North America — countries that represent different degrees of interdependence and histories of exposure to disaster:

During a four-hour disaster preparedness training run by one of the study’s authors, the participants were asked to complete a risk perception survey after being presented with information describing a tsunami and a terrorist event. The survey included questions about the probability of themselves or other people suffering a disaster-related fatality or injury. Risk scores were calculated based on answers to these questions, and differences between groups were analysed statistically.

“Japanese groups had the highest risk perceptions for both types of hazards and North Americans and Argentineans had the lowest risk perceptions for terrorism,” report the authors. They also found that participants in all groups rated their own risk in either type of disaster as lower than that of others.

“The strongest and most robust findings were of an optimistic bias that was especially prevalent in the US samples,” add Gierlach and colleagues. Although participants from the USA had a higher exposure to terrorist events than those from Japan and Argentina, they believed they were least vulnerable to them.

This may be explained by the country’s position of power in the world, the authors speculate. It also indicates that cultural factors have a stronger influence on risk perceptions compared with the frequency of exposure to disaster events. Similarly, participants from Japan, where terrorist events were least frequent, had the highest perceived risk, possibly because of the region’s instability and a history of other disasters such as atomic bombs and tsunamis.

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Tags: International · Preparedness Reports · Risk Communications

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