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Complacency, apathy lead people to ignore warnings

Hurricane damage

UB researchers found that past personal experience in “riding out” hurricanes can lead people to feel complacent when receiving emergency warnings.


Published July 3, 2013

“Generally speaking, a single source of information rarely prompts people to take appropriate action.”
Raj Sharman, associate professor
Department of Management Science and Systems

A number of factors, including complacency and apathy, can be blamed for citizens’ failure to heed disaster warnings, according to recent research from the School of Management.

Raj Sharman, associate professor, and H. Raghav Rao, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, both in the Department of Management Science and Systems, studied a number of post-disaster reports to assess why some people refused to evacuate in the face of warnings about imminent tornadoes, hurricanes and other emergency situations such as campus shootings and industrial accidents. The reports were conducted by organizations including the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Congressional Research Service.

The researchers found that past personal experience in “riding out” storms can lead people to feel complacent when receiving emergency warnings. On the other hand, previous warnings that proved to be false can result in apathetic responses when another warning occurs.

Post-disaster surveys also showed that many people lacked awareness about how serious the situation was when warnings happened.

To combat the factors leading to nonresponse, the researchers made several recommendations. First, warnings should come from more than one source.

“Generally speaking, a single source of information rarely prompts people to take appropriate action,” Sharman says. “Multiple sources are more effective.”

In addition to a community’s traditional emergency signal, such as a siren, warnings should be posted through traditional and/or social media. The professors’ research shows that text messages, Facebook and Twitter can be trusted sources of information, especially if messages are sent from a trustworthy source, such as a close friend or local police.

“Text messaging is now clearly preferred among younger age groups than other modes of communication, such as phone and email,” Sharman says. “Younger people are in constant connection with social media so these channels have more effective reach.” Also, since text messages remain in a queue, they do not need to be retransmitted and are more likely to be seen.

Second, warnings should include more descriptive language, using such words as “unsurvivable” and “catastrophic,” and urging citizens to take “immediate, life-saving action” to motivate the public in the event of imminent and extreme severe weather.

Finally, communities should take advantage of technological advances to make warnings more specific. GPS technology can allow for more tightly targeted geographic alerts, which may help motivate people to take action because they can see the threat to their particular area.

The research was published as a white paper for Federal Signal Corp. It included information from Federal Signal’s 2012 public safety survey, conducted by Zogby International. The research was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

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