Monday, November 12, 2012

Disaster Fatigue and Decision Risk

Imagine this scenario. Your already long 10 hour workday, including two hours of commuting to Lower Manhattan, has been stretched out to 12 hours because the trains aren’t running. When you get home at 7 p.m., you do what you can to fix the damage to your own house, but other post-storm problems keep interrupting, including having to go out to get drinking water and waiting in line for gasoline. Regardless of how long everything takes in this new post-storm reality, you still have to get to bed by midnight so you can get up in the morning and do it all over again.

For some who live in residential towers without power, every day includes the task of walking down twenty flights of stairs and returning up the stairs with gallons of water. It is no wonder that fatigue is becoming one of the biggest problems in the aftermath of hybrid storm Sandy. People are temporarily living lifestyles that wouldn’t be humanly possible to maintain in the long run, yet they have to keep things going somehow for a few more weeks until more repairs are done and conditions return to something resembling normal.

The news is part of the cycle of fatigue. Every change leads to new adjustments, and even unfounded rumors can force people to make unfamiliar decisions. The decisions themselves compound the fatigue. Even people at a safe distance from the disaster can experience fatigue after weeks of disaster news. The struggle to understand what things mean is potentially exhausting in itself. A common psychological adjustment people make is to start avoiding disaster-related news, and this can be accompanied by the imaginary picture of the disaster scene already cleaned up. The news media supports this illusion by withdrawing disaster coverage as soon as audience fatigue starts to set in.

Among its various economic effects, fatigue diminishes productivity and increases the risk of injury. The biggest economic problem with fatigue, though, is that it reduces the quality of the decisions that people make. Life goes on and people are forced to make decisions. The damage from Sandy may be substantially fixed two years from now, but some of the consequences of the bad decisions people make during this time will have longer-lasting implications than that.

Much of this risk can be avoided just by postponing decisions or making arrangements on a smaller scale. For example, if a disaster has just wiped away your office, it is probably not the time to rush to sign a long-term lease on a new office. Instead, look for something that will work for the next few months, until things settle down.