The human condition is riddled with extreme events that bring chaos into our lives. The whole world has been struggling for a year with the COVID-19 pandemic and almost 2.5 million people have died from it. In addition, only a few days ago, Japanese residents of Fukushima prefecture suffered an earthquake of 7.3 on the Richter scale – a decade after a previous earth tremor killed 18,000 people and forced 160,000 to evacuate their homes.
Natural disasters leave a trail of destruction, causing direct and horrible pain and suffering – costing lives, creating injuries – destroying houses, livelihoods, crops and broken infrastructures. While extensive research has been conducted on the economic and public healthcare costs of these types of disasters around the world, their effect does not end there.
A team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wanted to better understand the behavioral and social implications of these types of events around the world. Prof. Claude Berrebi, Ariel Karlinsky and Dr. Hanan Yonah wrote an in-depth paper in the journal Natural Hazards under the title “Individual and community behavioral responses to natural disasters” with the potential to change how policymakers and local governments respond in the wake of disasters.
They specifically wanted to understand how people reacted in the wake of disasters with regards to social behavior and whether it impacted their levels of philanthropy and criminal activity. While the media have popularized the idea that widespread looting and chaos occur as a result of major disasters, the researchers found that communities affected by disasters actually experience a decrease in crime. They also found a marked increase in philanthropic activity amongst people who live nearby disaster areas but aren’t directly affected by the disaster. “Gifts of resources to victims of disasters are common, and charity from individuals outside the affected community and within the community are well documented,” they wrote. “In fact, several institutions such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and others) exist specifically for this purpose.”
The team analyzed data of the disasters that took place in the US between 2004 and 2015 – a period that saw over 10,000 individual disasters of differing scope and killed over 8,300 people, causing more than 46,500 injuries and damage to property totaling more than $100 billion. The researchers carefully compared data between communities that were directly affected with those who had been spared direct impact from disasters.
The study revealed that disasters generally don’t contribute to a significant rise in criminal activity; in fact, there were definite declines in crime levels, although surrounding unaffected areas often reported an increase in crime.
While directly affected areas unsurprisingly saw a decrease in charitable giving, neighboring regions and even those communities farther away from the disaster zone saw a significant rise in philanthropy.
The paper proposed that the philanthropic trends they found were generally related to a model known as COR (Conservation of Resources.) This suggests that when a person feels fearful for his or her own resources, they are likely to be overly protective and reduce spending on anything not essential to best preserve their own wellbeing and survival. At the same time, increased giving in neighboring areas is driven by a sense of empathy and solidarity with people who live near them and were so harmed by the disaster.
“These findings have important implications for policy makers and others who are in charge of disaster response and crisis management,” said Berrebi. “The study demonstrates how people respond when their resources are threatened or even are believed to be threatened; this leads people to withdraw from social involvement while at the same, it may inspire others to show solidarity and give financial support. This is particularly important as we recognize that official channels and governments can often be slower in their responses, so policies that encourage volunteerism and increased civilian support for those directly affected can be of vital assistance in the immediate wake of such events.”