Why do people who care about their survival ignore the warnings of doom?

In the aftermath of an environmental or other type of disaster, we often find out that someone or some faction had already given a pre-emptive warning about the looming crisis. An outrage follows: who screwed up, why were these warnings ignored and why was no preventive action taken? It brings up a valid question: why do we act on some warnings but dismiss others? I look at few possible explanations in this first blog of a three-part series about disasters.

We can begin by looking at the question with a societal (and quite pessimistic) lens of risk society, borrowing from Ulrich Beck (1992). He argues that the complexity of the contemporary risks makes them very hard to estimate as they are difficult to understand without profound knowledge about the issue. Chemicals, radiation and climate change are all hidden behind numbers and diagrams, making them invisible to our basic senses. In this context, the reservations of few experts or a group of people in the face of potential great economic benefits may get lost in the background noise and labelled as scaremongering.

Following this line of thought, we can ask how difficult it is to gather the political will to change some industry wide systems before something bad actually happens? It is a grim thought, but from a learning perspective, it is possible that a disaster is required to reveal just how bad it can be.  Furthermore, even if the proactive change or action is successful and prevents these risks from coming true, there is usually little to show that these efforts were required. No prize for the good-doers.

However, not all warnings go to deaf ears. Understanding the psychology behind the issue is the first step of overcoming the feeling of futility. Here are three lessons highlighted in the recent Hidden Brain podcast and the linked articles you can find after the blog.

First, people are more willing to accept the warning if it comes from someone within the group. Being an insider with the right political credentials and understanding of the context where the decision-maker is operating improves greatly the effectiveness of the message. Due to psychological bias, we are generally more sympathetic with people who have more common with us. If you can frame the warning emphasizing the shared values or qualities, you may gain more empathy for your cause.

Second, the warning of the impending disaster must be clear enough that most people can see it. Furthermore, it has been proven that it is hard for people to look far into the future. If we think the consequences are in the distant future, we tend to discount the risk. Looking from the decision-makers perspective, they are often pulled in many different directions. Paying attention to one risk means less attention to others. If you come with a vague warning about some distant problem, you are going to get sidelined. Presenting a clear path how the conflict would escalate with strong evidence increases your chances of being heard.

Finally, people and decision-makers are more willing to acknowledge the warning if taking action does not require us to go too much out of our comfort zone or to change our existing policies drastically. Indeed, what makes warning often hard to believe is their political inconvenience. Sometimes it may not be possible but coming up with a solution that does not require a radical shift in existing strategy will reduce the chance that the warning will be ignored.


Juha Kotilainen


More reading & listening:

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage. Wiltshire.

Meyer, C. O., & Otto, F. (2016). How to Warn: ‘Outside-in Warnings’ of Western Governments about Violent Conflict and Mass Atrocities. DOI: 10.1177/1750635216656969 https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/54917301/Meyer_Otto_How_to_warn_MWC_accepted_final_edits.pdf

NPR Hidden Brain podcast (2018). The Cassandra Curse: Why We Heed Some Warnings, And Ignore Others https://www.npr.org/2018/09/17/648781756/the-cassandra-curse-why-we-heed-some-warnings-and-ignore-others

Why we keep ignoring even the most dire climate change warnings (2018.) http://time.com/5418690/why-ignore-climate-change-warnings-un-report/