Near-Misses and Future Disaster Preparedness



Disasters garner attention when they occur, and organizations commonly extract valuable lessons from visible failures, adopting new behaviors in response. For example, the United States saw numerous security policy changes following the September 11 terrorist attacks and emergency management and shelter policy changes following Hurricane Katrina. But what about those events that occur that fall short of disaster? Research that examines prior hazard experience shows that this experience can be a mixed blessing. Prior experience can stimulate protective measures, but sometimes prior experience can deceive people into feeling an unwarranted sense of safety. This research focuses on how people interpret near-miss experiences. We demonstrate that when near-misses are interpreted as disasters that did not occur and thus provide the perception that the system is resilient to the hazard, people illegitimately underestimate the danger of subsequent hazardous situations and make riskier decisions. On the other hand, if near-misses can be recognized and interpreted as disasters that almost happened and thus provide the perception that the system is vulnerable to the hazard, this will counter the basic “near-miss” effect and encourage mitigation. In this article, we use these distinctions between resilient and vulnerable near-misses to examine how people come to define an event as either a resilient or vulnerable near-miss, as well as how this interpretation influences their perceptions of risk and their future preparedness behavior. Our contribution is in highlighting the critical role that people's interpretation of the prior experience has on their subsequent behavior and in measuring what shapes this interpretation.