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Why We Aren’t Better Prepared

April 21, 2010

After doing a radio interview today on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s program Think Out Loud, someone asked me why people in the Pacific Northwest do not take the risk of a devastating earthquake more seriously. “Why aren’t we better prepared,” she asked.

This question is not quite as complicated as it might seem. As it turns out, people, on their own, are particularly poorly equipped to make accurate much less precise judgements about the likelihood and severity of future events, especially those that are rare or unusual. Even when presented with mountains of data or compelling narratives that illustrate in great, gory detail the hazards, risks, vulnerabilities and consequences that would produce a prospective catastrophe, people pretty consistently over-estimate the costs in time, money, material, and effort required in the present to address these details.

To the extent that both of these shortcomings arise from how we approach and interpret uncertainties about the future in the present, it behooves us to think about what we might do to correct these misperceptions, if indeed as it seems experience has shown our judgements to be flawed. One of the easiest and most common ways we can compensate for errors of perception is to change our perspective.

A simple way to do this involves changing the question we ask ourselves from, “How well prepared are we” to “How well would our current level of preparation serve us?” This subtle change allows us to consider evidence of past performance, which often proves pretty reliable even when its not always readily available. If the things we are now doing or not doing have proven problematic in the past or have not helped others, then we have a pretty compelling argument in favor of doing something different.

Figuring out what we should do then becomes our next problem. Usually, we solve this one by comparing ourselves to some sort of benchmark. Performance measures take many forms depending on the purpose to be achieved, and they tend to work better retrospectively than prospectively. Consequently, we usually substitute standards or best practices for performance measures, and this can get us in trouble pretty quickly.

For starters, our problems predicting the future come back into play. When we look to set standards to solve our problems, we often overcompensate and set the bar too high on the expectation that the cost of writing a standard that is too tough is offset by the risk of setting it too low. In other words, it is much easier to say that we mean to be prepared than to actually get ourselves prepared, and no one wants to be known as the person who let down the side by setting the bar too low.

So, what can we do if standards aren’t the answer and experience does a better job telling us where we stand today than where we ought to go tomorrow? The easy answer is pretty obvious: Doing something today is better than doing nothing, and if it’s not enough, we can always do more tomorrow.

Assessing readiness in the present as an assessment of where we are makes sense. Doing it regularly and comparing the results over time makes even more sense.

This approach should lead us to the realization that translating readiness today into preparedness tomorrow turns our preparations into a journey, not a destination. Recognizing and accepting that we will never be as prepared as we would like to be and will never know until after a disaster strikes whether our preparations were effective or not can liberate us to take action now rather than putting it off an hoping for the best.

Readiness, like saving for retirement, is an investment. We’re more likely to find ourselves ready when disaster strikes if we take series of small steps at regular intervals over a long time, than if we buy a lottery ticket and hope for a windfall.

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