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More Id, Less Ego

June 15, 2010

Last night I attended a public meeting organized to discuss emergency preparedness. The meeting was noteworthy not so much for what was discussed, but for who attended, why they were they, and how they behaved.

The overwhelming majority of the 60 or so attendees indicated they had previously experienced a disaster. For most of them, this experience or that of someone close to them was the main motivator for their interest in the topic. As such, the event had more of an air of a choir practice than a tent revival.

To say the group represented a more mature audience would be an understatement. No one under 30 was in evidence, and only two people appeared to be under 40. The overwhelming majority of those attending were over 60.

At least one-third of the attendees were already involved in community emergency response teams or had received specialized training in disaster preparedness or response skills as members of community or voluntary organizations active in disasters. In the small group sessions that constituted the main part of the program, these volunteers spoke self-righteously about their preparedness efforts. In many instances these volunteers dominated discussions and complained bitterly that their expertise was neither valued by city officials nor appreciated and embraced by their fellow citizens.

The meeting was organized to look for solutions. How could the attendees overcome the apathy and ignorance they saw so prevalent in others? A clear majority seemed to favor fear, and expected someone in authority to alleviate anxiety by providing people with information and direction. Indeed, the audience suggested that efforts to engage mainstream media were wholly inadequate.

The tendency to overestimate one’s own self-efficacy and attribute others’ failures to meet our expectations to flaws in their character or moral failings is both endemic to the human condition and dangerous. I have also witnessed first-hand the corrosive effect it can have on the sort of social cohesion that helps people cope with crisis.

A small minority of participants eventually hit upon the observations that disasters do not affect us only as individuals. We experience them as communities, and depend on others to respond. In the end, what we know and how that has influenced what we have already done makes less difference than what we are prepared to do with it when the need arises. Preparedness, they suggested, depends on positive and personal appeals to individual action for the collective good, if it is to have any redeeming or enduring social value.

This observation aligns very well with my own experiences as a disaster survivor and emergency responder. Disasters are great levelers. Those who think they are prepared often find it harder to adapt than those who have not. The self-righteous prepared are among the first and most vocal critics not of their fellow citizens, but of the agencies established to support the response and facilitate recovery.

“If only the government provided better leadership, we would all be better off,” they tell us. “If only the government was not so inept, our lives would not be so difficult,” comes the refrain.

The more we learn about the evolution of the human brain, the more evident it becomes that it is not our rational selves nor our empathic selves separately or alone that give us a survival advantage. It is the combination of the two and how we use them together that makes all the difference.

Self-aggrandizing behaviors that seek affirmation for past good deeds, like personal preparedness, do little to help us meet the survival challenges posed by our modern lifestyles and locales. We need to recognize that the innate human capacities to respond altruistically and adaptively to challenges is enhanced by knowledge.

But our actions still speak louder than our words. When we make emergency preparedness about knowing the right things rather and recognizing the right people rather than doing the right thing and acting in the right way, we make it about us rather than we.

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