Humans may be willing to put daily pleasure ahead of the threat of long-term disaster when selecting where to live, a new international study suggests.
Study co-author Professor Ben Newell, of the University of NSW, said the research examined how people would react to being told of a predicted increase in the risk of natural disasters with climate change.
Professor Newell, from the School of Psychology, said it was surprising how little weight participants in the study gave to disaster threat.
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"Even when the long-run value of living in the place is lower than staying safe, people still persisted with these riskier choices," he said.
"It is like living by the coast is fine most of the time, but are you willing to risk that chance of inundation?"
It was previously assumed more information would lead people to reduce their exposure to risk.
However, Professor Newell and his colleagues from the UK and Israel, who published their research today in Nature Climate Change, found the opposite was true.
Information after a disaster could have the "paradoxical effect of changing people's perception of risk in the opposite direction", Professor Newell said.
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"There was a tendency after a disaster had hit for some people to move into that area, which is consistent with a kind of thinking that lightning isn't going to strike in the same spot twice," he said.
Studying risk in ‘microworld'
For the study, the research team created a "microworld" that contained three villages with varying levels of risk attached to living there.
The 180 participants earned points for where they chose to live, but also lost points when a catastrophe hit their dwelling.
One region of the "microworld" was safe: catastrophes never occurred, but the points for choosing to live there were modest.
A second region offered more points, but rare catastrophes occurred which affected a small portion of the dwellings.
A third region had very rare catastrophes, which affected almost all the dwellings, but individual homeowners faced the same probability of disasters as in region two.
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The participants were given accurate information about the risk of catastrophe in each region.
However, the way they heard about disasters was varied in a way designed to mimic three different ways people might have access to information in real life - personal experience only, local information sources only, or additional information from afar via the media or authorities.
"The condition where people tolerated more risk was where they could see the risk from all of the different regions," Professor Newell said.
"You get the sense that most of the time things are okay so they tolerate this possibility of a rare disaster occurring."
However, when people were only given the factual data and were not aware of what was happening globally, they were less likely to tolerate the risk, he said.
Importance of communicating threats
Professor Newell said the findings highlighted the importance of how trends and the accumulation of disaster events were communicated.
"Saying that it is a ‘one in a 100-year storm' is not the best way to get across the accumulation of the risk," he said.
"We need to emphasize the occurrence rather than the non-occurrence of these events."
This could mean a shift to risk summaries that focused on long time intervals, as it would more likely include multiple disasters and emphasize the increasing prevalence of disasters.
However, Professor Newell said he was wary of drawing too much from the research.
"My biggest concern is jumping from a result in our experimental world to what the implications are for major societal disasters," he said.
"But at least it sheds some light on how people combine a description of a risk with the outcomes they perceive day-by-day in their experience."
This originally appeared on ABC Science Online.