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/$ -


    * Correspond

    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: carroll@mail.wsu.edu (M.S. Carroll).

  • 1. Introduction

    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

    they create.

    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

    2.1. Overview

    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

    larger society.

    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.

    3. Discussion

    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

    disaster management.

    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



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