Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Psychological calm in the eye of a storm

Research conducted in the aftermath of a devastating Chinese earthquake has uncovered a paradoxical psychological phenomenon - survivors living in the most devastated regions appear to be the least concerned by the ongoing risks. Shu Li and colleagues dubbed this the 'Psychological Typhoon Eye' in a paper published last year and now they've reported follow-up investigations that suggest the effect was still in evidence a year after the disaster.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake registered 8 on the Richter scale and killed over 68,000 people. More than four million people were also injured. In their initial paper, Shu Li's team observed that survivors living in the most devastated regions were the least concerned, as measured by their estimates for: how many relief workers were needed, the likelihood of a epidemic outbreak, the need to take safety measures against aftershocks, and the level of dose needed if a fictitious psychological medication were made available for an earthquake victim.

The new study of over 5000 residents finds that this association held after four and eleven months and it also replicates the finding when using a 'relational distance' measure of involvement in the quake. That is, people who reported having closer rather than more distant relations who'd been affected by the quake tended to report less ongoing concern with the threat.

One of the explanations for the Psychological Typhoon Eye mooted in Li's 2009 paper was psychological immunity - the idea being that exposure to danger builds psychological resilience. However, the new study undermined this explanation - people living in the most devastated regions still showed the same level of Psychological Typhoon Eye regardless of whether they themselves had suffered physical or economic harm from the quake.

Another possible explanation is cognitive dissonance. The idea here is that continuing to live in a dangerous area is psychologically uncomfortable - to justify this decision people have to downplay the risks in their own mind. Li's team said more research was needed to test this explanation.

These studies are not the first to find paradoxical psychological responses to danger. Research published in the 1970s found that people living nearer to French nuclear power stations perceived the risk to be lower than people living further away.
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ResearchBlogging.orgLi, S., Rao, L., Bai, X., Zheng, R., Ren, X., Li, J., Wang, Z., Liu, H., & Zhang, K. (2010). Progression of the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” and Variations Since the Wenchuan Earthquake. PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009727

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

1 comment:

  1. Talosaga2:01 pm

    The most obvious explanation (to me at least) seems to have been left out. That people are more resilient than we (those of us far away from disaster areas that only know of the damage through media reports etc.) expect them to be. Or in other words, that people close to danger are (more) correct in their assessment of help needed, compared to people far from danger. One controversial implications of this explanation is that we should be less altruistic than we feel we should, which might be why it wasn't mentioned. I have no idea if this explanation is correct or not, but it is interesting to consider the 'dark side' of the issue.

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