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The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters Paperback – February 7, 2017
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Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow
At a time when we face looming short- and long-term risks as varied as terrorism, cyberattacks, and climate change, this timely book diagnoses the innate psychological barriers to effective disaster planning and mitigation. Drawing on a variety of historical lessons and integrating insights into psychology, the authors prescribe practical approaches to disaster preparation. The Ostrich Paradox is a must-read, whether you are protecting the nation or your own family.”
Michael Chertoff, Former United States Secretary of Homeland Security
The Ostrich Paradox is an essential, sobering read for anyone interested in assessing and responding to tomorrow’s hazards today. Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther don’t just help us understand why we don’t prepare for disasters as we should, they also show us how to alter those behaviors and improve preparedness.”
Alan Schnitzer, Chief Executive Officer, The Travelers Companies, Inc.
Good things typically come in threes. In The Ostrich Paradox, however, Meyer and Kunreuther skillfully distill a large body of recent psychological insights on the barriers to action in the face of potential peril into four steps of a behavioral risk audit and into four guiding principles to ensure preventive action.”
Elke U. Weber, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
About the Author
Howard Kunreuther, James G. Dinan Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. His recent books include At War with the Weather (with Erwann Michel-Kerjan), winner of the Kulp-Wright Book Award from the American Risk and Insurance Association in 2011; Insurance and Behavioral Economics: Improving Decisions in the Most Misunderstood Industry (with Mark Pauly and Stacey McMorrow); and Leadership Dispatches: Chile’s Extraordinary Comeback from Disaster (with Michael Useem and Erwann Michel-Kerjan).
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While most of the examples in this book come from natural disasters, these mental errors contribute to many low probability but high consequence catastrophes. I couldn’t help but think about errors investors make in the stock market. Myopia: focusing on too short a time horizon; Amnesia: forgetting lessons of past disasters; Herding!
The second half of the book offers strategies to overcome these biases, but this area needs more work. The authors present a framework for a behavioral risk audit and describe preparedness plans that take our natural biases into account. I wish they had more examples of successful preparation to share. If planners read this book, maybe those will come.
1) Myopia: A tendency to focus on overly short future time horizons when appraising immediate costs and the potential benefits of protective investments--especially the hyperbolic discounting of upfront costs now vs harms years in the future.
2) Amnesia: a tendency to forget too quickly the lessons of past disasters.
3) Optimism: a tendency to underestimate the likelihood that losses will occur from future hazards.
4) Inertia: a tendency to maintain the status quo or adopt a default option when there is uncertainty about the benefits of investing in alternative protective measures.
5) Simplification: a tendency to selective attend to only a subset of relevant factors when making choices involving risk.
6) Herding: a tendency to base choices on the observed actions of others.
In this short volume (125 pages, including notes), they run through the biases and case studies, with a light breezy tone reminiscent of top level journalism rather than the bludgeoning of an academic paper. They suggest a process they deem a Behavioral Risk Audit to meet each of the biases head on. For example, low probability risks can be compared to driving in sunny and snowy conditions, or risk of a disaster can be stated over 25 years rather than annual. The Ostrich Paradox is a little light, but a great introduction to a new angle on risk assessment and management.