Watching the news, 40% of Galveston residents chose not to evacuate in advance of a storm that was rated, on an intensity energy scale, as 30% more powerful that Hurricane Katrina. The National Hurricane Center issued in its warning the very clear words “certain death”.

Yet 40% of residents stayed.

Why?

Ultimately, this points to an inability by people to assess risk correctly. This isn’t limited to storm chasing – it pervades all aspects of our society’s decision-making, which is why we have so many troubling problems today, from the mortgage crisis to quagmire wars.

Why can’t we assess risk effectively?

Part of it is education, and part of it is confusing risk and uncertainty. As I’ve mentioned before, risk is a mathematical expression of probability. There’s a 40% chance of rain today. There’s a 6.8% interest rate on this student loan (because interest rates represent a blend of profit-making and risk-taking).

Uncertainty is a lack of information. You can’t put math on something you don’t know.

As hurricanes approach land, uncertainty fades away and risk becomes quantifiable. Computer models for Hurricanes Ike and Gustav get reliable about 3 days out; at 5 days out, they’re still shaky. There’s still more uncertainty than risk. Once they’re 3 days out, we can assess the risk of a hurricane making landfall with greater certainty, as we did with Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike.

When people make decisions based on uncertainty rather than risk, they tend to choose behavior that is more reckless than a situation would warrant. For example, 40% of Galveston residents chose to stay. Given the uncertainty of the storm’s actual damage potential, they opted to gamble that it wouldn’t be as bad as NHC made it out to be.

When you face risk, you know what your risk tolerance is. There’s a small but non-zero chance you could die every day. You opt to take the risk of getting up in the morning and going about your affairs because the statistical likelihood of you dying is relatively small.

If you face a situation that is uncertain rather than risky, opt for caution rather than recklessness. You may be right, but if you don’t have information that can quantify your risk with a relatively small amount of uncertainty, you’re more likely to benefit from caution.

And for heaven’s sake, when the NHC says certain death – words they don’t use lightly – please believe them and run like hell.

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