Using Principles of Influence to Enhance Emergency Preparedness

In a previous post, I touched on the science of persuasion and the concept of social proofing as a way in which people and groups respond to uncertainty. Robert Cialdini pioneered the study of influence in his books Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practise

Recent studies have shown that fewer than half of U.S. and Canadian households have emergency preparedness plans in place, despite their proven effect in assisting both the speed and quality of recovery. Using Cialdini’s study of influence may provide additional understanding and insight into how organizations and governments (particularly EM agencies) can increase household participation in emergency preparedness plans.

The six principles of influence are reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. These principles have been studied extensively and are backed up by empirical studies in the fields of psychology, marketing, economics, anthropology and social sciences. Each of these principles must be employed with the strongest ethical standards as a fundamental guiding philosophy. 

The first three principles are examined below in the context of emergency preparedness, with part 2 to be posted next week:

Reciprocation. As a general rule, people feel obligated to return favours offered to them. As with all the principles of influence, this trait is common across all human cultures. An example of this is when a small gift is provided by a salesperson to a potential customer. Even if the gift is unwanted, it will influence the receiver to reciprocate in some way. 

How could the principle of reciprocation be used to convince individuals and households to prepare for emergencies? A small gift, like a detailed ‘personal preparedness plan’ booklet, customized to the specific hazards of the geographic location may encourage participation. Recipients of the booklet could ‘reciprocate’ by posting about their plans as part of an integrated campaign. 

Commitment and Consistency. Appearing to be consistent in behaviour and action is a strongly held desire, as is the desire to stand by commitments made. This is why some retail outlets may offer an attractive, or “low ball” offer to consumers, in order to get them into the store, then using these techniques to upsell, or make the initial (lower) offer appear less favourable to the customer.

This principle used in the context of emergency preparedness can also help the organization assess the effectiveness of an initiative. Using the example of the booklet above, commitment to ‘practising the plan’ could be sought and obtained through methodical followup, targeted social and traditional media campaigns.

Social Proof. The principle of social proof holds that people will look to those similar to themselves when making decisions, particularly in times of uncertainty. Unfortunately, this principle of persuasion is sometimes used to exploit often vulnerable populations, through deliberate disinformation campaigns or ‘infomercials’ claiming to provide proof of a biased claim.

Used ethically, social proof can be a powerful technique to persuade people in a homogenous group to adopt a set of behaviours. In an emergency preparedness context, a small sign prominently displayed in a front window, may encourage others to follow suit. 

As always, it is important to remember these techniques must be employed to the highest ethical standards.

Stay tuned for part two of this series. Should you or your organization wish to learn more, please feel free to contact me directly. 

Why People Don’t Plan for an Emergency

A majority of households are unprepared for an emergency, according to Statistics Canada

As emergency management professionals know, having an emergency preparedness plan in place is positively correlated to the speed and quality of recovery.

Efforts to improve public preparedness in Canada has included messaging from Public Safety Canada, provincial/territorial emergency management agencies and municipalities. South of the border, FEMA maintains preparedness resources and situational fact sheets to assist U.S. residents. Messaging is repeated on social media platforms and in other online arenas people tend to congregate. 

Yet – despite the ubiquity of resources available, 2014 statistics show that a majority of Canadian households are unprepared for an emergency situation. To account for survey methodology and response bias, similar studies were undertaken in the United States, Australia and Scotland. All produced similar results. 

Despite the obvious benefits of having a personal preparedness plan in place, why do so few households actually have a preparedness plan in place? This question was studied in a January 2020 article by Junghwa Choi and Wesley Wehde in the Journal of Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy

According to Choi and Wehde in studying U.S. residents, the trust of an individual towards the emergency authority may have a strong bearing on their cooperation with emergency preparedness recommendations. The trust of the emergency authority is closely linked to trust levels in government overall, according to public administration scholars.

A possible explanation for this may be rooted in social science. Social proofing, by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion explains the tendency for individuals, when unable to determine the appropriate behaviour, to rely on surrounding people for information. The theory of social proof is driven by an assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the current situation, whether they actually do or not. 

In the obvious uncertainty surrounding an emergency, senior officials responsible for emergency management would be wise to understand and incorporate six principles of influence in promoting emergency preparedness plans. These principles, and their relation to emergency management practise, will be discussed in depth in a future post. 

How does your agency or organization promote preparedness? How do you measure and track whether your constituents have an emergency preparedness plan in place?

A 4-Step Approach to Building Heat Resilient Cities

The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the number of already hot days getting hotter, and increased frequency of deadly heat waves, defined as prolonged periods of excessive heat.  

The global upward trend of extreme heat has contributed to the severity of summer wildfires and drought conditions, and the impacts of heat waves are borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable populations. Factoring in a deadly pandemic, traditional coping mechanisms, including moving vulnerable populations to crowded ‘cooling centres’ may increase the transmission rates of the disease.

In a study in Environmental Research Letters, strategies and a framework to reduce urban vulnerability to extreme heat was discussed. The authors, Wilhelmi and Hayden argue that an interdisciplinary approach is required, including information about weather and climate, the natural and built environment, social processes, interactions with stakeholders and assessment of local community vulnerability. 

In considering exposure to extreme heat, the authors identify ‘urban heat islands’ as compared to suburban and rural environments. The temperature gradient may be as high as 10 degrees in denser developments, due to excess heat absorbed and released from denser development. This differential distribution of heat in urban and non-urban neighbourhoods contributes to an increased perception of risk and vulnerability. Vulnerability can be defined not only by the physical proximity to the risk, but by the safety nets that may or may not be available to affected populations. 

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, chaired by Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles have developed a number of best practises to begin to adapt cities to extreme heat: 

Measure urban heat and vulnerability to understand the risk. Vulnerable population groups, including the elderly, young children and those with underlying conditions are among the most sensitive to extreme heat. Individuals experiencing homelessness and other marginalized groups may not have equitable access to water, green spaces and air conditioning. In addition to identifying these groups, it’s important to identify the local temperature threshold at which heat becomes a threat. 

As an example, in Durban, South Africa, heat vulnerability maps have been created by using information about temperature projections and information regarding urban surfaces (roads and buildings), overlaid with socio-economic data. The result has been a social vulnerability index for sensitivity to heat that can help to guide policy decisions:

Heat vulnerability map of Durban, South Africa

Develop a heatwave response plan. Heat vulnerability maps, once in place can guide policy in advance of heat season. Cities are wise to build collaborative partnerships between governments, meteorological agencies, health and emergency departments, the media and other partners to develop a comprehensive response plan. Building local capacity among health-care professionals and communication with the public may raise greater awareness about the heat risk and ways to negotiate it. 

Cooling centres and cool routes, along with specialized apps to communicate with citizens may help to raise awareness. Cities such as Paris, Athens and Rotterdam have developed the EXTREMA app to assess heat vulnerability and direct vulnerable individuals to local cooling centres. 

Develop long-term plans to reduce the heat threat. Heat mitigation solutions are part of wider urban planning initiatives and may include cool roofs, pavements and road surfaces. Green roofs and walls can also help to reduce temperatures, in addition to increased planting of trees and urban vegetation. Increased vegetation also may help to reduce the risk of flooding. 

The NYC Cool Roofs initiative for example provides local jobseekers with valuable training and work experience, that has since been replicated in Spain and South Korea. 

Raise awareness of actions to reduce urban heat. Developing information materials with broad appeal may help in achieving secondary benefits such as the creation of jobs, reduced energy costs, improved energy security and air quality, and overall well-being of residents. 

Worldwide, heat waves currently impact 200 million people in 350 countries. The Paris Agreement on climate change outlines a target of an overall 1.5 degree reduction, but if this goal is not met, 1.6 billion people may be impacted by urban heat by the 2050s. 

Heat waves are predictable hazards. Mitigation actions by cities and governments may help to address and understand heat risk, particularly for those most at risk.