Why we're buying houses in areas we know are disaster-prone

Human behaviour sometimes goes against logic, and a new study shows that this is also the case when it comes to our reaction to disasters. Far from fleeing from them, it seems publicising them can actually have the opposite effect.

Sounds a little strange? It is, but that’s what the real-life evidence says, and a new study has just backed it up, The Conversation reports.

An analysis of house sales following the Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California suggested that new buyers reduced their assessment of risk as information concerning the location and rate of earthquakes was publicised.

Similar results have been recorded after a disaster in Japan and have been backed up by a laboratory study, which found that people tended to take more risks when choosing where to live when provided with information about recent disasters that had occurred in the area.

This information appeared to reinforce the idea for people that “most of the time nothing bad happens in the risky areas”.

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Statements we often see in the media such as “one-in-50 or one-in-100-year” event could lead people to assume, incorrectly, that there wouldn’t be another event for 49 or 99 years. 

Is that crazy? On the face of it, it seems so, because most of us would assume we’d do all we could to lessen our exposure to risk. However, it appears we run in the opposite direction, yet another paradox of human behaviour.

The findings have left authorities scratching their heads about how to handle information released about natural disasters – not a good place to be in when Australia is about to head into what could be a catastrophic bushfire season.

It seems the old belief of the more information the better, and that providing summaries of risk levels would lead people to reduce their exposure to relevant risks, is now out the window. 

The researchers suggest a possible way of handling the issue could be for risk messages to focus on the accumulation of events and the increase in their associated risks across time. For example, people should be reminded how many major floods or severe fire days occurred between specific points in time – such as “four events between 1900 and 1949”, or “ten events between 1950 and 2000”.

Let’s talk: Would you consider the risk of natural disasters when choosing somewhere to live? Does it surprise you that people are drawn to these areas?