Why are natural disasters not natural for victims?
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with and recover from the event. This phenomenon presents particular challenges for those trying to
Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119
www.elsevier.com/locate/eiarunderstand the social impacts of such events because of the reflexive nature of such analysis. Often
the social analyst or even the government agency manager must sort through such perceptions and
behavior and (at least implicitly) make judgments about which assignments of responsibility may
have some validity and which are largely the result of the psychology of the disaster itself. This
article presents a conceptual framework derived largely from social psychology to help develop a
better understand such perceptions and behavior. While no bmagic bulletQ formula for evaluating thevalidity of disaster victims claims is presented, the conceptual framework is presented as a starting
point for understanding this particular aspect of the psychology of natural disasters.
D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Social psychological impact; Natural disaster; Responsibility; Victims perceptions; Conceptual
frameworkWhy are natural disasters not bnaturalQ for victims?
Yoshitaka Kumagaia, John Edwardsb, Matthew S. Carrollc,*
aAkita International University, Yuwa-machi, Akita, JapanbDepartment of Psychology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97332, USA
cDepartment of Natural Resource Sciences, Washington State University, Johnson Hall 183, P.O. Box 646410,
Pullman, WA 99164, USA
Received 30 August 2003; received in revised form 25 March 2004; accepted 28 June 2004
Available online 19 March 2005
Some type of formal or informal social assessment is often carried out in the wake of natural
disasters. One often-observed phenomenon in such situations is that disaster victims and their
sympathizers tend to focus on those elements of disasters that might have been avoided or mitigated
by human intervention and thus assign bundueQ levels of responsibility to human agents. Often theresponsibility or blame is directed at the very government agencies charged with helping people cope0195-9255/$ -
E-mail adding author. Tel.: +1 509 335 2235; fax: +1 509 335 7862.see front matter D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
ress: firstname.lastname@example.org (M.S. Carroll).
Natural disasters are a significant cause of dislocation and disruption in the lives of
people and communities. In the US alone 65 major natural disaster declarations were made
in 1998, while in 1999, 2000 and 2001, 50, 45 and 45 major natural disaster declarations
were made respectively in the US (FEMA, 2003a). The financial costs are significant. For
example, in 1998 $4.2 billion was spent on natural disasters in the US and $1.4 billion was
spent in 1999 (FEMA, 2003b). Some form of social assessment is often conducted in the
wake of natural disasters. Social assessment practitioners, however, are concerned with
more than financial costs. Social assessment is concerned with the broader impacts of such
events on the lives of individuals, families and communities.
One of the complications that assessment practitioners and government agency
managers face that is not an issue in assessments conducted by those in non-social
disciplines is reflexivity. Put simply, what people believe about the cause of an event can
have an impact on how they respond to and in some cases recover from the event. Perhaps
the most famous example of this is the Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia in 1972. At
least one scholar who studied the aftermath of the flood concluded that the communities
seeming inability to recover from the event had to do with the belief on the part of victims
that human negligence (in this case on the part of a mining company) was to blame for the
event (Erikson, 1976).
Generally speaking, whether it is justified or not, blaming appears to draw energy away
from recovery. For example, in the case of damage from forest fires in residential areas,
Carroll et al. (in press) uncovered evidence of conflict within communities over whether to
expend energy blaming the US Forest Service for the fire damage or to bmove onQ in therecovery process.
Despite the obvious negative consequences associated with blaming in such situations
and the sometimes overwhelming influence of non-human factors such as weather,
climate, water flow. etc., it is widely observed that disaster victims tend to look for human
agency in constructing their explanations of why their lives were disrupted by an event
(Shaver, 1985; DeMan et al., 1985; Rochford and Blocker, 1991; Blocker and Sherkat,
1992). This article attempts to provide a conceptual framework that addresses why natural
disasters are often not perceived as bnaturalQ by people who are victimized by them butinstead are often regarded as having been caused by human agents. In some cases, the very
parties who are charged with attempting to protect society from or to mitigate such events
are seen as the agents responsible for the damage and disruption disasters create.
Beyond conceptual development for its own sake, we believe such a framework will
have practical applications including: (1) helping social impact assessment practitioners
and employees of government agencies charged with attempting to prevent and/or mitigate
the effects of disaster events understand why victims sometimes view the cause of and
responsibility for disasters differently than they do; (2) encouraging relevant agency
members to be aware of the importance of effective communication in the context of
disaster events; and (3) helping agencies and social impact assessment practitioners to
generate disaster preparation and mitigation plans that take into account the possibility of
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 107(and hopefully the minimization of) inaccurate or oversimplified blaming by victims and
observers. While this paper makes no claim of offering bmagic bullet solutions to the
problems generated by the dynamics we describe here, the authors hope this framework
provides a starting point for understanding them as a first step toward solving the problems
As we noted above, an often-observed phenomenon among victims of natural disaster
is that they often do not regard a natural disaster as bnaturalQ despite the fact that primaryagents of natural disasters are often uncontrollable natural forces. What is complicated
about such situations and what leaves open the possibility of a variety of attributions about
causation is the fact that human action (or inaction) can nearly always be said to be involved
in disaster events. For example in the case of floods, perhaps flood control measures were
in place (or not) and the flood happened anyway. Perhaps some actions upstream affected
water levels; perhaps the weather report underestimated rainfall and the threat of flooding
was not taken seriously. Causation of forest fires is particularly complicated. Was
the cause of the fire the person who threw the cigarette out the car window or 75 years
of fire exclusion in forest stands accompanied by resulting forest floor fuel buildup?
Was the fire a natural event in the life of the forest and within the historic range of variability
or was it the result of human carelessness or forest management malpractice?
What often occurs in bnaturalQ disaster situations is that victims and observersoversimplify the bcausesQ of the event in such a way as to focus on those elements thatwere or bshould have beenQ within the realm of human control. Instead of painting acomplex causal picture that an objective analysis might suggest, they often simplify that
picture and focus on the belief that the consequences of natural disasters are the result of
human actions or inactions, and they assign primary responsibility for the damage and
disruption to human agents. There are numerous examples of victims making these sorts of
attributions. Victims of the La Conchita (Ventura County, CA) landslide believed that the
La Conchita Ranch Companys farm practices caused the landslide, and consequently, they
sued the ranch for damages (Polakovic, 1998). Although a lawyer for the La Conchita
Company insisted that a lengthy heavy rainfall was the most direct cause of the landslide,
victims did not regard it as the primary cause of the landslide. Blocker and Sherkat (1992,
p.154) found that two-thirds of a group of flood-impacted survey respondents regarded the
bflood as a technological disaster and assigned responsibility to government officials anddevelopment policies.Q
Some victims of the Wenatchee Complex Fires of 1994 blamed the USDA Forest
Service (USFS) because they believed that the agency had delayed its initial attack and had
inadequate firefighting strategies (Daniels, 1997; Carroll et al., 2000). Although lightning
ignited the fires, and their size and intensity were amplified by high winds and heat, some
victims did not regard those natural forces as the primary causes of the damage (Carroll
et al., 2000). Kumagai et al. (in press) discovered that some victims of the Butte Complex
fires in northern California, which were started by more than 5000 lightning strikes,
insisted that back fires set by firefighters in fighting the blaze burned their properties,
despite the fact that there was no evidence for this.
1.1. Two common assumptions
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119108The way in which such victims perceive natural disasters and who is responsible for
their damage seems to be based at least in part on two assumptions commonly made
about such events. First, victims and potential victims often believe that society should
be able to prevent most natural disasters by using technologies and skills to control the
natural forces that trigger such events. This assumption appears to have become more
dominant in current-day western thought than it was historically. As pointed out by some
researchers, the assessment of causalities of natural disasters has changed significantly
over the last centuries as modern technology advanced and the extent of human
intervention in natural resources increased (Blocker and Sherkat, 1992). Historically,
almost all natural disasters tended to be regarded as bacts of GodQ (McCaughey et al.,1994). Moreover, predicting where and when earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic
eruptions would take place was almost impossible because devices such as seismographs
had not been invented in those days. Therefore, there might not have been any candidate
but bnatureQ as the primary cause of natural disasters during that era. However, theinvention of various technologies has dramatically improved societys ability to predict
the occurrence or movements of natural disasters. Such technology, of course, cannot be
the target of blame assignment. Instead, human agents who have invented and utilized
such technology are often the target of blame by victims and those who sympathize with
The second assumption is the widespread belief that government entities should protect
the public from most any natural disaster. Thus alternative candidates for blame
assignment by victims have emerged: government entities (and sometimes non-govern-
ment entities) became objects of blame when individuals are victimized by natural disaster.
It is more than a little ironic that the advancement of technology has made the distinction
between natural and technological (human-caused) disasters less clear (Berren et al., 1980;
McCaughey et al., 1994). bThe disaster agents, per se, have become less seen asdistinguishing factors as the control of nature is interpreted not only as within human
ability, but also as societys responsibility,Q (Blocker and Sherkat, 1992, p.161). As Drabek(1986, p. 201) cogently points out, bthe American experience of the past three decadesseems to be one wherein God is losing ground very rapidly, and disaster victims engage in
a blame assignation process.QThese two widely held assumptions ignore or downplay a number of realities.
Regarding the first assumption, human agents can and do predict the occurrence of natural
disasters to a greater extent than ever before by using modern technology. However, even
the best equipped and trained technical experts cannot precisely predict when and how
every natural disaster will take place. Regarding the second assumption, in the US, various
levels of government agencies from local fire departments to the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) are established to deal with preparation, mitigation, rescue
and restoration activities associated with natural disasters. In the practical world, those
entities, however, cannot assume the burden for all responsibilities and activities related to
In summary, the literature (i.e. Stallings, 1988; Wolensky and Miller, 1981)
generally suggests that citizens appear to expect instantaneous reactions from
governmental agencies during natural disaster events, which thereby puts such agencies
in the position of becoming available for blame targeting by victims and their
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 109sympathizers when such actions are not forthcoming in the manner and/or time frame
2. Conceptual framework
Beyond the above-mentioned societal assumptions, is there a specific explanation of
why people tend to attribute the causes of natural disasters to human agents generally and
governmental agencies in particular? A significant body of work in the field of social
psychology addresses the processes that guide peoples assessment of causation, blame,
and responsibility. Such work typically falls under the auspices of attribution theory
(Heider, 1958; Jones and Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1967). Attribution theory concerns the
processes by which people understand the causes of events, the factors that influence those
processes, and the consequences of making different types of attributions. Decades of
work on attribution have yielded an enormous amount of empirical and theoretical work.
The model presented in this paper is based largely on this work.
Before proceeding it will be helpful to draw the readers attention to two key
distinctions in the psychological attribution literature. Researchers in social psychology
distinguish between internal and external attributions (e.g., Heider, 1958). Internal
attributions are attributions to causes that reside in people, such as their personality traits
or motivations. External attributions are attributions to causes that reside outside of people,
such as situational factors. This distinction has been shown repeatedly to have important
consequences for the persons behavior, thoughts, emotions, and well-being (e.g.,
Buchanan and Seligman, 1995; Weiner, 1985). For instance, attributing the cause of a
negative event to oneself (i.e., attributing to a cause with an internal locus, as when a
student attributes a bad grade to low intelligence) tends to hurt self-esteem and elicit
negative emotions (e.g., Weiner, 1985).
The second distinction is between causal attributions and responsibility attributions. A
causal attribution is the determination of the antecedent(s) of an event sufficient for the
occurrence of the event (Shaver and Drown, 1986). Causes may or may not involve
humans. Responsibility attributions, on the other hand, are judgments about people that are
designed to assess whether a person should be held accountable for some event.
Responsibility attributions concern banswerabilityQ, that is, who is to be held accountablefor an event (Hamilton, 1978; Schlenker et al., 1994; Shaver, 1985). They are wedded to
societal needs to regulate the behavior of members, maintain a system of rewards and
punishments, and bparcel outQ societal tasks to different elements of the society.Attributions of cause are relevant to responsibility attributions inasmuch as they are a
component that feeds into the assessment of responsibility, but the two judgments are
distinct (Shaver, 1985). Judgments of responsibility become more likely with increases in
the targets perceived causal connection to the event, awareness of the consequences of his
or her actions, intent to bring about the event, lack of coercion, and understanding of the
moral ramifications of the act (Shaver, 1985). Because responsibility attributions are
embedded in societal expectations of appropriate behavior, they also involve moral or
legal factors. That is, in assessing responsibility, peoples behavior is examined to see if it
conforms either to general standards of behavior or to standards entailed by the persons
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119110specific role in the society (Hamilton, 1986; Schlenker et al., 1994). One ramification of
this is that a person can be held responsible for an event without actually having actively
caused it, as in the case of a person who had the ability to prevent a negative event, and
should have done so according to the moral standards of the society, but failed to act.
Some researchers have suggested blaming as a third type of attribution, in which a
responsible person is accused of having purposefully done something immoral that led to
the event (Alicke, 2000; Shaver and Drown, 1986). However, it is common for the terms
blame and responsibility to be used synonymously.
2.2. Attributions for natural disasters
A natural disaster is a prototype of an event that will elicit attributions from people,
especially people victimized by it (cf. Lehman et al., 1987; Taylor et al., 1984). Disasters
are typically unexpected, negative, and seen as important; these attributes are the three
main instigators of attributional thought (Bohner et al., 1988; Weiner, 1985). Disasters are
also likely to prompt people to consider attributions of responsibility and blame because
they will strongly threaten peoples sense of control (Walster, 1966), another instigator of
attributional thought, and because the scope of such events typically has relevance to the
In considering the forces that impact victims attributional thought for natural disasters,
it may be useful to think in terms of the process illustrated in Fig. 1. Attributions are the
result of a sequence of cognitive stages or processes, each of which can be influenced by a
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 111Fig. 1. The dynamics of the formation of attributions about disasters.
variety of factors. These stages, portrayed in the figure, are encoding, the taking in of
information; retrieval, the recovery or reconstruction of previously encoded information
from memory; and judgment, the putting together of different pieces of information into a
judgment, inference, or decision (in this case, an attribution). As we discuss below, biases
can occur at each of these stages.
Prior to the disaster (and the attribution of it), certain elements will already be in place
that will influence subsequent attributions (labeled bpreexisting personal qualities andbeliefsQ in the figure). These are primarily psychological in nature as they are things suchas beliefs, knowledge, and motivation. They include peoples chronic levels of control and
self-esteem motivation (that is, how strongly the person feels a need to control events and
how strongly the person wants to maintain a positive view of him- or herself); preexisting
beliefs about things relevant to the disaster (e.g., beliefs about the causes of the type of
disaster that will occur); and knowledge of actions they have taken relevant to the disaster
and their beliefs about the impact of such actions (e.g., what type of vegetation theyve
planted around their house and their beliefs about the flammability of this vegetation). In
addition, people have personal qualities that influence their ability to think through
information (e.g., intelligence, education).
A second set of factors influencing attributions is directly tied to the event itself. These
include the type of event (fire, flood, etc.), the victims personal outcomes (e.g., was their
property damaged?), and the actual causes of the event. A third set of factors occurs at the
time of the attribution (probably after the disaster but not necessarily). These include
information about the event, the source of such information, the political context, specific
questions asked of the person and the social context of the question (i.e., when a researcher
asks a victim about the disaster, does the person believe they are being asked for a causal
or responsibility attribution?), and factors that influence a persons ability to think
mindfully about their attribution (e.g., factors influencing level of stress; distraction).
These factors can directly influence the three stages or they can work indirectly,
through their impact on motivation. Cognitive and motivational factors are traditionally
viewed by psychologists as separable factors, although they can influence each other. The
relevant motivational events will involve control and self-esteem motivation.
Fig. 1 is organized such that psychological events (motivations, the three cognitive
stages, and preexisting personal qualities and beliefs) are to the right and situational factors
are to the left. In addition, the timing of various events is ordered from earliest (top) to
latest (bottom). As the figure suggests, encoding is probably done chiefly during the event
itself, whereas retrieval is done at the time of the attribution. Motivations are likely to be
active and influential both at the time of the event and during the formation of the
attribution. Note that the timing suggested by the figure is not set in stone and can vary
depending on the individual situation. For instance, a victim might receive and encode
information after the event, or the attribution might be made during the event. Nonetheless,
the pattern represented in the figure is the most likely course of events.
With this framework in mind, we next consider factors likely to be associated with
disasters that can influence the attributions of disaster victims, in particular the factors that
lead the attributions of victims to differ from those of other people. In some ways, it is not
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119112surprising that disasters often provoke differing attributions from victims and government
agencies (as well as from outside observers), nor that victims often blame government
agencies for the disaster. There are several factors known to influence attributions that are
likely to push victims towards attributing natural disasters to government agencies.
2.3. The nature of the event
One relatively straightforward reason that the attributions of victims sometimes differ
from those of other people is that the two groups are making attributions for different
events. Misunderstandings about which event a victim is explaining can lead to incorrect
conclusions regarding victims attributions (cf. Shaver, 1985). One can distinguish
between attributions for the overall disaster (e.g., bthe Biscuit fireQ), for a more localizedcomponent of the disaster (bthe part of the fire that reached my townQ), and for specificharms done to the victim (bthe destruction of my houseQ), as well as others. Even thoughthese specific events may have causal factors in common (e.g., a lightning strike), they
also will have unique causal factors (wind direction, type of vegetation on a victims
property). In addition, the perceived necessity (the extent to which a particular causal
factor must occur before the event will happen) and sufficiency (the extent to which a
causal factor can bring about the event by itself) of different causes for bringing about
these different events is likely to differ. For instance, a lightning strike on a distant hill may
be seen by people as higher in sufficiency for explaining the existence of a forest fire in
general than it is for explaining a specific type of damage to a specific house in a specific
location, which may require the addition of other explanatory factors (e.g., wind direction).
Therefore, when thinking about victims attribution for natural disasters, it is important to
be clear about which event they are trying to explain, as what looks like an irrational or
biased attribution for one event may actually be a reasonable attribution for a different
Note that the choice of event the person explains will be influenced by factors such as
the salience of the event and the persons motivations. Victims will probably be very
motivated to explain the specific harm done to them, and such harm will be very salient to
them. Government agency personnel, on the other hand, will probably be much more
focused on the event in general. A similar issue concerns clarity about whether victims are
making causal attributions or responsibility attributions. Causal attributions concern issues
of the sufficiency of a factor to cause an event, and do not necessarily involve humans.
Responsibility attributions are designed to assign accountability, and always involve
people or groups. It is not uncommon, even in the social psychology literature, to find
uncertainty regarding whether people are making causal attributions or responsibility
attributions, often because research participants were asked questions that were vaguely or
inappropriately worded (Shaver and Drown, 1986). Note that sometimes subtle social
factors can guide people toward making one or the other type of attribution, as when a
victim believes that a reporter is especially interested in assigning responsibility to
someone and they answer questions in that light.
2.4. Motivational factors
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 113Motivations are also likely to play an important role in guiding the attributions of
victims. As shown in Fig. 1, motivations can be active and influential both during and after
the event, and can influence encoding, retrieval, and judgmental processes. Disasters are
likely to arouse very strong self-esteem, and particularly, control concerns for victims.
Natural disasters are obviously extremely negative events for victims, often impacting a
persons life in a wholesale fashion. Attribution theory suggests that in the face of such
events, people will feel a loss of control, such that they fear that they are unable to do
things to bring about positive events or avoid negative ones. Lack of control motivates
people to regain feelings of control. One way that people do this is to choose attributions
for the negative event that help them feel more in control (Kelley, 1967; Wong and Weiner,
1981). The type of attribution that people choose to accomplish this goal, however, will
vary depending on the exact circumstances.
In a review of the literature on blaming others for negative events, Tennen and Affleck
(1990) argue that blaming others is most likely under a specific set of circumstances.
Specifically, blaming others tends to occur when the other person was present during the
event, in a position of authority or responsibility relevant to the event, not well known to
the attributor (so as to decrease both the likeability of the target and the possibility of
retaliation by the target), and when the event being explained was severe. Obviously, these
conditions will be the case with regards to many government agencies in natural disaster
In disaster situations, victims tendencies to blame others may be bolstered by self-
esteem motivation. Because they are negative events, disasters will provoke self-esteem
concerns on the part of victims. Much research has shown that that such motivation leads
people to make external attributions for negative events (e.g., Weary, 1978). It is not
surprising that victims would prefer to avoid feeling stupid or incompetent, as would be
the case if they made an internal attribution for their plight.
2.5. Informational factors
The information that people have concerning a disaster constrains the attributions they
can make, since both the attributed causal factor and the supporting evidence for the
attribution must be contained in it. Some of this information will be gained during the
event itself, whereas some of it will be gained afterwards. Such information will first be
encoded and then retrieved when the victim is making his or her attribution. One way to
think about this is that information is bfilteredQ through the persons cognitive processes.Encoding processes will heavily influence what information the victim has available for
an attribution and the way that information is interpreted. For instance, the person may not
attend to information at the encoding stage, making it difficult or impossible to retrieve
this information. Alternatively, he or she may focus a great deal of attention on a piece of
information, making it easy to retrieve. Even when a person attends to a piece of
information, the person will interpret the information in a way that makes sense to him or
her, which can lead to biased encoding. The more ambiguous the information, the more the
victim will have to rely on their own interpretation.
Encoding done during or immediately after a disaster is likely to be subjected to strong
biasing forces. Emotions and motivations will be strong, the person will be under a great
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119114deal of stress (which tends to narrow attention), and there will probably be a large number
of things demanding peoples attention, which affects the amount of encoding that can be
done for any one piece of information. Retrieval processes will also subject to biasing
factors. Note that retrieval is heavily dependent on encodingwhen information is not
encoded well, it is difficult to retrieve. Also, strong expectations and motivation can lead
people to bconstructQ memories that are biased towards the expectation or motivation.In addition, victims perceptions of the source of information will influence their use of
it. A victim may be unsure about the veracity or relevance of the information he or she has.
In a disaster situation, what information victims have about the broader situation is likely
to be obtained rather haphazardly from a variety of different sources (media, rumor, etc.).
These sources may present conflicting information. Some information, especially if it is
technical, may be difficult for victims to understand. Uncertainty about its veracity may
lead them to discount even potentially useful information. This uncertainty may sometimes
be prompted by suspicion of the sources motives or expertise. Suspicion tends to lead
people to discount information they get from a source (e.g., Koomen et al., 2000). Such
suspicion may extend to government personnel, especially if the victim harbors negative
beliefs about government.
Factors such as these can have a profound effect on the attributions victims make, as
people cannot make attributions to things of which they are unaware, that they do not
understand, or the veracity of which they are unsure. From this perspective, it is perhaps
not surprising that people making attributions about natural disasters will make attributions
to things such as the personal characteristics of agency personnel (e.g., to their
incompetence or to nefarious motives) rather than to more technical causes, since human
traits and motives are something most people feel that they understand intuitively.
Another factor that will influence the attributions that victims make is their ability to
process that information. Generally speaking, people either can put a great deal of
conscious effort into making attributional judgments, in which they try to utilize as much
information as they have and combine it in sophisticated ways, or they can put little if any
conscious effort into such judgments, relying instead on their nonconscious processes to
suggest an attribution (e.g., Gilbert, 1989). Judgments made nonconsciously will be highly
susceptible to being biased by factors influencing memory and attention, such as the
salience of information or preexisting expectations. This is not to say that consciously
made attributions are immune to such biases, but conscious effort does at least offer people
the opportunity to correct for biases of which they are aware. Because of the importance of
the event, most disaster victims will be motivated to consciously think through their
attributions, but circumstances may limit their ability to do so. There may be a number of
things requiring their attention and thus limiting their ability to focus on the attributional
judgment (a state known as bcognitive busynessQ, Gilbert and Malone, 1995). The stress ofthe situation may affect their ability to concentrate. There may also be natural, preexisting
differences in peoples ability to consciously make such judgments.
2.6. Attributions of responsibility
It would be expected that many disaster victims are eager to assign responsibility for
their misfortune. Factors that instigate responsibility attributions, such as control
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 115motivation, the desire for retribution, and societal needs to identify culpable parties, are
likely to be present in disaster situations. Victims may also be motivated to blame others
for assigning blame, and to seek information that is consistent (as opposed to inconsistent)with the blame attribution. The ramification of this is that once a victim starts down the
road towards blaming government agency personnel, it is unlikely that they will reverse
course unless confronted with overwhelming evidence that they should do so.
It is important for agency personnel to be aware that arguments regarding the natural
causes of disasters may not be persuasive to someone who is making a responsibility
attribution. For one thing, the biases described above may lead the person to believe that
the agency had more control over the event or its effects than the agency is admitting.
More importantly, because responsibility attributions can be made on the basis of a person
or organizations social role, the agency may be held accountable even for events over
which it has very little control simply because the person believes the agencys role is to
deal with such events.
The dynamics discussed in this paper create practical problems of at least three types in
the management of disaster situations. First, they may hinder effective communication
between disaster-affected citizens and responsible agencies owing to conflicting views
regarding the causality of a natural disaster and who was responsible for it. The ineffective
communication may heighten frustration between these two parties, and make it difficult
to build the cooperative relationships necessary to work on recovery or future natural
Second, the dynamics described above may lead to tension toward and distrust of
public officials on the part of victims and perhaps the general public. This may, in turn,
negatively affect the publics future support for government initiated actions to prevent or
mitigate disasters. In such circumstances, polarization and tension between these two
parties may be increased, damaging their ongoing and future relationships and possiblyfor the mishap for political reasons, since judgments of responsibility for an event can
directly impact the extent to which victims are perceived by others as deserving of aid
(Sitka, 1999). Therefore, even when victims are clearly asked to make a causal attribution,
they may be motivated to make a responsibility attribution instead.
Responsibility attribution can be influenced by a number of biasing factors (e.g.,
Alicke, 1992). For instance, the more severe the event, the more blame is assigned
(Walster, 1966). Affect can also play a role. Alickes (2000) Culpable Control Model of
assigning blame postulates that once the process of assigning blame has begun, people are
motivated to blame the person or group that elicits the most negative affect. This negative
affect might be elicited by any number of things, such as the perceivers estimation of the
targets character, behaviors, intentions, race or gender, etc. The perceiver then attempts to
validate his or her blame attribution by examining relevant evidence. This process tends to
be biased towards confirmation of the attribution.
A number of psychological processes support this validation bias, including tendencies
to overestimate how much control the target person had over the event, to lower standards
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119116leading to costly and time-consuming lawsuits. This may lead to a destructive cycle of
recrimination and increased mistrust between citizens and their government. Third, simply
assigning responsibility for the damages to government agencies may negatively affect
victims future risk awareness of and preparedness for potential natural disasters. Taking
preventive actions for potential natural disasters is often a shared responsibility between
citizens and their government. A focus on blaming may impede constructive actions such
as taking practical steps in recovery or cooperative actions to prepare for a future event.
The distinction between blaming that is based largely or solely on socialpsychological
dynamics and that which is based on genuinely substantive issues is not always easy to
make. It would be a mistake in the authors view to chalk up every instance of citizen
anger with government agencies concerning disaster events to incorrect or incomplete
attributions; after all government agencies and other entities sometimes do engage in what
might be broadly seen as negligent or irresponsible behavior On the other hand, in dealing
with disaster situations, it is particularly useful for the social impact assessment
practitioner to understand their potential for triggering such attributions and to recognize
such reactions for what they are. In real life situations, attributions made concerning
human agents role in bcreatingQ a disaster may not be entirely incorrect but may simplyplace undue emphasis on some human failure in the midst of much more powerful natural
forces. The ability to recognize the potential for such dynamics is the first step in dealing
with their negative consequences.
It is not our purpose in this paper to lay out detailed strategies for dealing with the
practical consequences of the dynamics we have described here. However, a couple of
observations are in order. One is that although they are no panacea, the communication
strategies of responsible officials and their relationships to affected parties in disaster
situations do seem to matter. Kumagai et al. (in press) and others have observed that when
responsible officials seem excessively bureaucratic in their communications and dealings
with victims, blaming seems to be more likely. Such a style is likely to elicit negative
affect on the part of victims and to bring to mind negative stereotypes of government
employees, both of which will make increase the likelihood that officials are blamed. On
the other hand, when positive personal relationships are developed (or even better, exist
before the event) blaming seems less prevalent (Tennen and Affleck, 1990). Those
planning for and managing disaster situations should carefully consider the short- and
long-term implications of how and what they communicate to victims and the general
public in light of the emotional and biophysical aspects of any disaster. It is important that
whatever is communicated to victims and the public during a disaster event be as clear,
consistent, empathetic and honest as humanly possible.
The other observation is that defensive or less than honest responses to blaming serve
no purpose other than to add fuel to the fire. It is our observation that when public officials
admit to human errors when they occur in disaster situations and express empathy toward
victims, negative dynamics are more likely to defuse.
If there is a single message for those who deal with disaster situations in the framework
presented here, it is that inaccurate or oversimplified attributions on the part of disaster
victims and their sympathizers are not something to be seen as outside the range of
expected behavior and thought processes. Further, such dynamics can be understood in
terms of their causes just as biophysical events can be seen in light of their causes. This
Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 117framework is suggestive rather than definitive. The more we can learn about such
dynamics, the more effectively we can deal with the human experiences of disaster events.
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Why are natural disasters not natural for victims?IntroductionTwo common assumptions
Conceptual frameworkOverviewAttributions for natural disastersThe nature of the eventMotivational factorsInformational factorsAttributions of responsibility