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Prior Near-Misses Make People Overconfident in Emergency Situations

03/15/2011 -The next time you're faced with the decision to evacuate during a forecasted hurricane, it may be a smart move not to investigate how many times previous hurricanes in the area failed to cause damage.

Anarticle in the latest issue of Risk Analysis finds that people who have knowledge of near-miss experiences associated with dangerous events perceive risk differently from those with no knowledge of near-misses.

"Our research...shows how people who have experienced a similar situation but escape damage because of chance will make decisions consistent with a perception that the situation is less risky than those without the past experience," write researchers Robin L. Dillon and Catherine H. Tinsley of Georgetown University and Matthew Cronin of George Mason University.

The authors explain that a near-miss is when people escape a disaster because of luck, such as the failure of underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate his explosive device on Flight 253 bound for Detroit on Christmas 2009, giving passengers the time to subdue him. Or when winds out of the northwest arise out of nowhere to push a wildfire away from a residential area in California.

"People appear to mistake such good fortune as an indicator of resiliency," the authors note. But it's not; it's just luck.

To test whether knowledge of past misses leads to overconfident risk perceptions, the researchers set up two experiments involving hurricane scenarios.

In the first study, the researchers asked a mixed group of approximately 100 MBA students and  "risk-interested participants" whether they wanted to buy flood insurance for a home they just purchased in a hurricane-prone area. The participants were then broken up into three groups: those given no information on past near-misses, those told a near-miss occurred last year, and finally those told near-misses had occurred for the past three seasons.

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