Extreme and catastrophic events pose challenges for normative models of risk management decision making. They invite development of new methods and principles to complement existing normative decision and risk analysis. Because such events are rare, it is difficult to learn about them from experience. They can prompt both too little concern before the fact, and too much after. Emotionally charged and vivid outcomes promote probability neglect and distort risk perceptions. Aversion to acting on uncertain probabilities saps precautionary action; moral hazard distorts incentives to take care; imperfect learning and social adaptation (e.g., herd-following, group-think) complicate forecasting and coordination of individual behaviors and undermine prediction, preparation, and insurance of catastrophic events. Such difficulties raise substantial challenges for normative decision theories prescribing how catastrophe risks should be managed. This article summarizes challenges for catastrophic hazards with uncertain or unpredictable frequencies and severities, hard-to-envision and incompletely described decision alternatives and consequences, and individual responses that influence each other. Conceptual models and examples clarify where and why new methods are needed to complement traditional normative decision theories for individuals and groups. For example, prospective and retrospective preferences for risk management alternatives may conflict; procedures for combining individual beliefs or preferences can produce collective decisions that no one favors; and individual choices or behaviors in preparing for possible disasters may have no equilibrium. Recent ideas for building “disaster-resilient” communities can complement traditional normative decision theories, helping to meet the practical need for better ways to manage risks of extreme and catastrophic events.
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