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Motivation, Maslow, Perspective and Preparedness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Chuck Wallace
March 26, 2018

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute released information in February of 2016, indicating two thirds (65 percent), of American Households do not have adequate plans for a disaster. Of the remaining 35 percent who say they are prepared, many plans do not have all the items required to have a complete emergency plan. Why aren’t people willing to prepare? Can we place the blame solely upon the people, or are emergency management leaders, the media and government leaders partly to blame for inadequate participation by the people in disaster preparedness?


Motivation to prepare for Natural Disasters is directly related to one’s perception of the risk and hazard to particular disaster events, as well as a personal prioritization of life issues related to Maslow’s theory. If a person or jurisdiction has an expectation (whether it’s correct or not) of help arriving within a few hours, perhaps even within a few days, how does that impact the probability of whether they prepare for disaster or not? What are the impacts upon people, infrastructure and the local economy based upon that particular expectation, especially if it’s not correct?

Preparedness, Perspective and Psychological Value

In a December 2011 Ted Talk, Perspective is Everything, Rory Sutherland, a British advertising executive, and the current Executive Creative Director of OgilvyOne, describes the psychological value to motivation:

“We too often forget, things are NOT what they are; they are what we think they are. Things are what we compare them to. Yet we make psychology subordinate to everything else. Psychological value is often the best kind.”

The psychological value of past experience presents a barrier that is hugely subjective to the person who may be affected the most during a disaster event. Many people have lived through past disaster experiences. If those experiences were perceived to be not very severe or the impact upon that person and their family was minimal, they begin to believe they won’t be impacted any more severely by a future event, than they were in the past. As a result, preparedness planning may be disregarded

Living through past events creates a psychological imprint which can impede the realization, each disaster event is unique and can be far worse than previous events. Another aspect of past experience is how far removed are the people from the last event that affected them? The farther away from the event, some of the terrible circumstances of the event are forgotten or perhaps lose their intensity in the minds of those who suffered through the incident, creating a circumstance where preparedness planning is ignored.


There have been numerous news segments and articles by a myriad of people including emergency managers which have affixed a cost to prepare for disaster. That issue alone is responsible for many people to say it’s too expensive and to withdraw from all preparedness activity. Most items needed for preparation can be found at home, with no added cost, but if your perception is you need money to be prepared and you’re struggling to feed your family, or afford housing, heat and other utilities, which items receive priority in those individual households? Actually, if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, at what point do you need to reach where disaster preparedness reaches a high enough priority to receive attention in a majority of American households? It’s all extremely subjective.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


A great quote from the California-Nevada Public Health Training Center on How to Motivate Public Preparedness: Communicating “Actionable” Risk states, “Increasing perceived risk doesn’t motivate or predict public preparedness action-taking.” Many times, we throw out statistical data on the occurrence of disaster, relaying information from years past into many years forward. Virtually every emergency management article and presentation, contains some type of statistical data in an attempt to sway the listener or reader into a mindset of preparation. I even began this article with statistical data. But is it enough to motivate someone reading to take action and begin to prepare for disaster?

Who Me?

The psychological value to preparedness is paramount if you wish to initiate change. “One size fits all” handouts, presentations and past practices reduce the chances of having more people prepare for disaster. We must empathize with people and their individual circumstances in order to truly understand their triggers to commence emergency preparedness activities – a huge task to undertake. We need to change our practices in order to change results. The country has remained at a level, 65 percent unprepared for disaster since 2005 (Hurricane Katrina). Why did we expect better results in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico if nothing has changed since then? The results are evident everywhere. We expect other people to change when it is truly all of us who must change. It’s time to take a deep look into the mirror and ask what you must do to move past the status quo.

Author: Chuck Wallace is a Past-President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA) He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [email protected].

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