Why do people criticise emergency services and their decisions following a disaster?

Why have we seen such criticisms of the emergency response and the decision to delay recovery rather than take immediate action? Why do some people they they can make better decisions that the Police and other authorities?

To understand this better, we need to think about how and why we might feel the need to make decisions for other people.

We have a fairly good understanding about how we make decisions for ourselves. However, when making decisions for other people, particularly where circumstances are risky, we know less about how this is done. However, the sorts of situations where people make decisions for others can be grouped into three types: those in which someone requests that the decision is made for them; those in which the decision is imposed on them; and those in which their condition or circumstances requires that the decision is made for them.

Let’s think about this last situation to understand more about what happened after the Whakaari / White Island eruption. People who are offering different conclusions and criticisms of the recovery decisions  are engaging in surrogate decision-making, assuming that for some reason of incapacity or ill-judgment, the authorities involved or tasked to respond are coming to the incorrect conclusion about the right course action to take.

Some people think that there are at least two approaches to making decisions for others, even though decision-makers may not be fully aware that they are taking them; a paternalistic approach, and an empathetic approach. A paternalistic approach would aim to make the decision that is most likely to produce the outcome that they consider would be objectively the best for the other person; an empathetic approach would aim to reach the goals that they consider the other person to have within the bounds of risk that they judge the other person would view as acceptable.

So to understand criticism of the recovery response, we can think about both approaches. In practical terms, adopting a paternalistic approach is likely to be easier. It can often rely on publicly available information about the expected costs and benefits of different decisions and on adopting socially acceptable levels of risk. If you have higher levels of risk tolerance, or perceive the risks to be low, then you would favour a less cautious approach. A debate is already underway concerning whether New Zealand has a culture of minimising risk, and / or whether we have a higher social acceptability of risk than other places, due to the very nature of where we live, and the legislation and regulatory architecture which manages risks in tourism and other aspects of our lives.

An empathetic approach and the direction in which this takes you will depend on who you have in mind and have empathy for when thinking about the decision. If you’re thinking about the affected families and trying to ease their their sense of grief and loss, then perhaps you are more likely to discount the possible risk of harm to those in the services tasked to recover bodies to increase the potential of better outcome for the affected families. So, you come to the conclusion that the recovery response is too slow. However, you may be more concerned about potential risk and harm to members of the rescue services, and prioritise reduction of risk for those who may be putting themselves in potential harm’s way; in which case you would favour a more cautious approach.

Of course, these two approaches intertwine in ways that we may not yet fully comprehend, but you can see how a societal acceptance of relatively high levels of risk and an empathetic approach favouring the affected families could lead to criticism of the emergency response.

There is a third, complicating factor that we need to think about too.

Research on social comparison processes suggests that we are not particularly good at assessing other people’s opinions, abilities, or future behaviour. We tend to be egocentric. To make judgments about other people, we tend to retrieve knowledge about ourselves and use it to make assessments about others. The ‘false consensus’ effect provides lots of evidence for this. This is a tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with us. This kind of cognitive bias leads people to believe that their own values and ideas e.g. perception and tolerance of risk, are ‘normal’ and that the majority of people share these same opinions. This also may explain why when people offer views making decisions for others are challenged, they are often perplexed and puzzled as they assume that most people think like they do.

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