Why people ignore tornado warnings

I listened to an audiobook that contained a section discussing the work of Kim Klockow, a behavioural science researcher tasked with working out why people in Oklahoma often ignored tornado warnings.

It’s hard for me to comprehend how anyone could not heed a tornado warning, but then again I have never experienced one, so it probably scares me more than those who have to deal with them on a somewhat regular basis.

Maybe it’s more akin to bushfires or swimming where there may well be sharks, for those of us based in Australia.

Forecasting extreme weather events and tornados in Oklahoma had become remarkably accurate, which was making it possible to give people adequate warning to seek shelter.

As I only just found out, forecasting tornados does not occur days in advance, it often happens within the hour.

So there’s not much time to sound the alarm, which is different to a bushfire or flooding threat that can be communicated hours or days before action is needed.

But when the sirens sounded, many people were not heeding the advice to seek shelter.

As the tornado got closer, then they decided to leave, but it was often too late.

Inside a car was one of the worst places to be during a tornado, but many people were stuck in traffic because so many were in their cars looking to escape.

This was a serious problem - the warning system was redundant if people weren’t heeding the advice to seek shelter, so a solution needed to be found.

There were many theories of why this was the case, including not trusting the government or an insensitivity due to media hype or too many warning.

But Klockow instead focused on the individuals and their approach to tornado warnings, because if behavioural economics teaching us anything it’s that people don’t always act in a rational way.

Tom Fitzgerald