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How Could They Have Stayed Behind?

• August 28, 2009 • 12:00 PM

A group of psychologists argue that during Hurricane Katrina, those who stayed in New Orleans had a very different sense of their options than those who oversaw the evacuations or those watching from afar.

In the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina, many commentators and politicians expressed considerable frustration and puzzlement as to why so many people ignored the warnings and decided to stay in New Orleans. One — then-Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. — even suggested that, “There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.”

But how much of a decision was it really?

According to new study by a group of psychologists, to think of it as an active decision betrays a particular model of human agency, an individual-centered one held by mainstream American culture, in which people both have resources and generally enjoy a high degree of personal efficacy. But had observers like Santorum spent their entire life in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, they surely would have understood that hunkering down to brace for the storm was not so much a conscious choice for most, but really the only option that made sense, given a lack of resources and the centrality of community and faith in their lives.

“The event was framed by media and government as being a product of choice,” said Nicole Stephens, who is completing a doctorate in psychology at Stanford University and was the lead author on the study. “The media focused on how survivors chose to stay, and the assumption was that everyone’s actions reflected what they wanted to do, but it didn’t attend to powerful environmental constraints, like whether people have cars.”

The study, titled “Why Did They ‘Choose’ to Stay?” was published in Psychological Science and co-authored with MarYam G. Hamedani, a former Stanford psychology Ph.D. student who’s currently a private research consultant; Stanford psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus; Princeton psychology Ph.D. student Hilary B. Bergsieker; and Stanford psychology Ph.D. student Liyam Eloul.

The psychologists framed the study around a distinction between two models of human agency — the disjoint and the conjoint — in order to understand what happened in New Orleans and why.

The disjoint model is built on assumptions of independence. It assumes that individuals have opportunities, make choices to influence their environment and that their choices are a reflection of their goals and preferences. This is the model that dominates mainstream American discourse and culture, and the model of agency held by many of the people who did leave.

The conjoint model, on the other hand, is built on assumptions of interdependence. Here, human agency is primarily about adapting one’s self to the world (rather than trying to change the environment), often through faith and spirituality, and decisions are more community-oriented. Though the conjoint model might seem more familiar to many middle-class observers as an East Asian philosophy, the authors argue that these attitudes are also prevalent in working-class Americans.

That’s because many working-class folks lack the resources to engage in individualistic, independent behaviors. And this particular lived experience leads them to adapt by developing a sense of personal agency in which they make the most of their lives, given the challenges they face in exerting meaningful control over their environment. This is something that is often very difficult for outsiders to get.

“Despite the whole thing about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you won’t necessarily get it,” Hamedani said. “Even to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You have to walk through their world and how that informs who they are.”

The difficulty of really understanding another point of view came through in a survey of both New Orleans relief workers and lay observers that the psychologists conducted. Though the researchers had been somewhat optimistic that the relief workers might have more understanding of those who stayed behind, they generally described them in quite negative terms, portraying the stayers in varying shades of passive, lazy and uninformed. In this respect, the relief workers were not particularly different than the lay observers, even despite their close contact with many survivors.

“We thought they’d be more charitable,” Stephens said. “I think it’s just a powerful testament to the fact that our mainstream culture is so focused on choice and individualism and what people can do to control their environment.”

A second survey in the study contrasted the attitudes of leavers and stayers. As expected (and consistent with the different models of human agency), leavers were much more likely to emphasize choice, independence and to talk about being focused on the future and concerned about the risks of staying. Stayers were much more likely to emphasize community, faith, inner strength and tended to underestimate the risks. In short, while leavers saw the risks and wanted to get the heck out, stayers turned to the limited resources they had to do their best to weather the storm. For them, agency was handling what life gave them.

All of this has important consequences for how cities and agencies think about disaster evacuation and relief. At the most basic level, as the researchers emphasized in interviews, there is the simple fact that many of the people who stayed behind did so simply because they didn’t have cars and/or didn’t have any friends or family outside the city to take them in. But at a more fundamental level, there is the challenge of disseminating messages that will both reach and resonate with all residents of the city, not just those with an individualistic sense of agency.

“One of the things we heard from many of the survivors was that they didn’t hear too many warnings or didn’t think the warnings were that big of a deal,” Stephens said. “If you distribute messages through sources that people trust, it makes those messages more effective.”

For example, Stephens suggested that it might be more effective to disseminate messages through trusted institutions like churches or other community groups, rather than the mainstream media.

Markus emphasized the fact that since conjoint decision-making is community decision-making, it is important for messages to emphasize community concerns. “People tend to look into what others are doing because their fates are tied together,” she said. “Most people are attached to their home communities and they don’t want to leave them.”

Stephens suggested that evacuation messages might be more effective if they mentioned things like, “how you need to help to preserve your community in the future. They would be more effective if they take into account the powerful relationships that people have with others.”

But these different models of agency are important not just in the context of Katrina or disaster evacuation. Markus argues there is a real danger in assuming all people ought to come to the same decisions, and that this kind of misguided thinking is rampant in much of the scholarly research that ultimately informs policymaking.

“All of the social sciences are using one and the same model of the person,” Markus said. “And that’s a particular model that comes out of the middle-class American context in particular. It’s the rational actor of economics, the reasonable person of the law.

“But as far as it goes,” Markus added, “it’s really right for about 5 percent of the world’s population. When it comes down to it, when we say ‘people,’ we’re talking only about North American, middle-class people with a reasonably high level of education and resources. … This model is an historical and philosophical product, but it’s not the way people naturally are. There are other ways to be an agent that deserve study.”

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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