The effect of natural disasters on criminal - and charitable - activity in the USA

February 28, 2021

Listen to this article

The effect of natural disasters on criminal - and charitable - activity in the USA

I met with friends of mine who are in the business of climate science the other day and we were talking about the Great Freeze in the US and the record warmth in Europe.

“It’s not climate warming,” said one, “it’s climate weirding, and it’s liable to get weirder over the next 100 years.”

In reality, the recent spate of disasters wildfires, hurricanes, floods etc., they noted, though much more frequent, are not new. The human condition is riddled with extreme events, which bring chaos into our lives. 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.

Recently, a team of researchers sought to better understand the behavioral and social implications of these types of events around the world, which resulted in a paper with the potential to change how policy makers and local governments respond in the wake of disasters.

With the research published in the journal Natural Hazards, the researchers 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 media has popularized a notion of widespread looting and chaos in the wake of major disasters, the researchers found that communities impacted by disasters actually experience a decrease in crime. Their article also found a marked increase in philanthropic activity amongst people that live nearby disaster areas but weren't directly affected by the disaster.

What the researchers say: “We analyzed data of the disasters that took place in the US between 2004 and 2015, a period which saw over 10,000 individual disasters of differing scope and killed over 8,300 people, causing damage in excess of 100 billion dollars,” said the lead author. “We carefully compared data between communities that were directly affected versus those who had been spared direct impact from disasters.”

The study revealed that disasters generally don't contribute to marked increase in criminal activity and in fact there were definite reductions in crime levels—although surrounding unaffected areas often reported an uptick in crime.

While directly affected areas understandably saw a decrease in charitable giving, neighboring regions and even those communities more distanced from the disaster zone would see marked increase in philanthropy.

The paper proposed that the philanthropic trends they found are generally related to a model known as COR (Conservation of Resources.) The model 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 that is not essential so as to best preserve for 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 impacted by the disaster.

The lead author added, "These findings have important implications for policy makers and others who are in charge of disaster response and crisis management. The study demonstrates how people respond when their resources are threatened, or even are believed to be threatened and this leads people to withdraw from social involvement while at the same time can inspire others to come out in solidarity and financial support. This is particularly important as we recognize that often official channels and governments can be slower in their responses and therefore policies that encourage volunteerism and increased civilian support for those directly affected can be of vital assistance in the immediate wake of such events."

So, what? Once again, we have an important study which shows the danger of reacting and legislating based on our assumptions. It has been widely assumed that disasters—and even civil unrest—would lead to increased looting and other crimes. This has now been shown to be wrong in terms of natural disasters and prior studies following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations showed that it’s not necessarily true of spontaneous civil unrest either.

People generally—and this seems especially true of politicians and business leaders—are reluctant to check and verify their assumptions. We humans are afraid of being wrong because our assumptions are often intimately connected with our sense of self.

We assume that looting will increase so we arm police to the teeth. We use isolated incidents of crime to justify our generalized perceptions and legislate or propagate accordingly. And we never admit we were wrong. Even scientists and academics are prone to the tyranny of false assumptions.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.