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Hurricane Katrina’s Tie with Psychology

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When Hurricane Katrina spiraled into eastern regions of North America in 2005, it broke records with its casualties, costs, and strength. Over 1,800 people perished, and taking into account damage repair and survivor relief, the disaster became the U.S.’s costliest hurricane in history. But there is more to the catastrophe than the damage it caused. The choices in opinions and actions that people made affected the aftermath, and this is shown through the following psychological concepts and their applications in the real world:

Social loafing is a concept where many people in a group tend to not accomplish as much as they would have if they had been alone. This concept occurs when people are in groups. People assume that their full effort is not needed because of all of the other participants in the group. In the Hurricane Katrina situation, social loafing was present in several countries in terms of donating items, such as money and goods. The American Red Cross asked the international community for donations to help victims. Though many countries participated and offered much help, many other nations donated very little or none at all. There may have been specific internal reasons for not donating, but it is possible that these nations knew that they were not alone in helping the U.S. Such nations felt that their help was not as crucial because of how big the international community was. They thus slacked off, in a sense, as a way of letting others contribute too.

Groupthink is a format of thinking within a group in which members aim to minimize conflict and reach conclusions as soon as possible without deeply considering all options and consequences. It is generally caused by pressures within the group, and it can result with negative effects of efficiency and judgment. During Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, groupthink was apparent when the American Red Cross was searching for donations and help on the international level. The hurricane had caused much destruction, and the affected Americans felt that they were in great need for help. They asked for as much international help as possible and, as a result, received over $854 million, according to the Washington Post. However, less than 5% of these funds—$40 million—were used to help the hurricane’s victims and reconstruction. Because the U.S. was in so much need for help, it did not consider how much money and help would be necessary. The nation thus asked for the maximum help possible, which proved to be a lack of judgment. A limited consideration was given to the future consequences regarding excess funds.

The just-world phenomenon is people’s tendency to assume that everyone deserves what he or she goes through. The idea concludes that the world is fair, even for victims who appear to receive injustice. For example, in Hurricane Katrina’s situation, some people did not try to help the disaster victims because they believed that the victims deserved the calamity. They felt that the victims easily could have listened to the hurricane alerts and taken a plane or driven to another region. Such people who fall into the just-world phenomenon feel that the victims had the opportunity to prevent the disaster or, even more, save themselves. (Such people often do not realize other environmental factors. For example, some victims may have been unable to leave the hurricane’s disaster region for personal reasons.)

Hindsight bias refers to people’s tendency to believe that events are more predictable than before the events take place. Commonly known as the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon, this tendency can lead to distortions in memory recollections and reconstructions of scenarios. In terms of Hurricane Katrina, hindsight bias was present when people—like disaster victims and the U.S. government—believed that they knew the hurricane and its strength before the catastrophe happened. Such people believed they knew how much damage the hurricane would cause and how many people would be affected. In reality, these people proved to really not know the effects because if they had, then more would have been done to evacuate possible victims and prevent possible damage. Furthermore, without the hurricane happening yet, the people could not have predicted exactly what such consequences would be since there have been few hurricanes as disastrous as Hurricane Katrina in the past.

Social facilitation refers to the effect of people’s presence on someone’s performance. For example, a person tends to perform an easier task better when others are present. (Simultaneously, he tends to perform a more difficult task worse when others are present.) In essence, people’s presence evokes pressure. In Hurricane Katrina’s situation, social facilitation was present among disaster victims who were trying to escape during the aftermath and flood. Victims who could run or swim easily most likely had an easier time doing both due to the many surrounding people who were either watching them, trying to help others, or saving themselves. The victims thus may have been able to swim or run more quickly in the flood because of the people watching and the resulting adrenaline that flowed through victims’ bodies. (Such adrenaline could have also partly been from the excitement and fear of swimming and surviving a flood.)

Understanding these psychological terms can help people understand situations better and make more careful decisions. Hurricane Katrina may not have been able to be prevented, but the underlying opinions and actions of people could have bettered the situation if such psychological concepts were taken into account.

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  1. detola
    March 29, 2013 at 9:25 AM

    This is wonderful. Thanks for putting this out here. Kudos!

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