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Very interesting (repost) article on psychological responses to danger- and implications for Haiti

Hi all,

First of all Welcome to new members of our initiative- we're delighted to have you. I'll post in a second about tomorrow's conference call. But take a second to read this interesting article about how people psychgologically respond to danger - and subsequently minimize risks post-disaster or danger. I find it fascinating to consider, as it explains everything from the denial and accomodation survivors make to batterers, to why people like my neighbors in the Bay Area play down the risk of future earthquakes -- something that makes me feel like an alarmist :).

This was reposted from a Haiti social networking site called Haiti Rewired that my SF neighbor, Evan Hansen, the editor of Wired Online, agreed to launch in February to bring the digital and innovative community to bring its collective intelligence and experience to serve Haitians rebuilding the country and various grids. It now has 750 members, which shows how much global community support is out there to help Haiti. I started a conversation thread there on Women and Tech, and hope it takes off -- tapping into the community to help Haitian women access ideas, training and other innovations related to building, green tech etc - that they can access and help to implement.

- Anne-christine

From >

The following is a guest post from Noah Gray, a Senior Editor of
Nature, the international weekly journal of science. He received his
Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and has
held postdoctoral research positions at Janelia Farms Research Center
and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The opinions expressed in this
piece are his own and do not necessarily represent those of NPG. You
can follow him on Twitter @NoahWG.

Following a natural disaster, rapid response protocol dictates that
rescuing those still in immediate danger and caring for the wounded
are top priorities. Not far below these directives is the
implementation of strategies designed to stave off the after-effects
of devastation. With homes lost and infrastructure paralyzed, public
health risks become an immediate concern for everyone within an
affected region, expanding the challenge faced by medical personnel to
more than just those who are acutely injured. Naturally, this would
predict that optimizing the size of the medical response force is
critical. While true, survey research started by Chinese researchers
after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 [1], and recently updated [2],
suggests that accounting for psychological effects pertaining to
well-being and safety are essential to tackling public health risks.

The “Psychological Typhoon Eye” describes an inverse relationship
between the proximity of the victim to natural disaster devastation
and their perceived health or safety risks. Essentially, if a person
lives close to the center of the destruction, they are more likely to
underestimate the public health risks associated with the aftermath of
the natural disaster. The name has its origins in meteorology,
referring to the eye of a typhoon, a region of calm weather at the
center of a strong storm. A similar phenomenon has been reported in
the literature regarding risk perception [3]; in France, those living
closer to a nuclear reactor feel less anxiety about the potential
danger while those living further away tended to be more apprehensive
of the risk.

To explore the robustness and persistence of this original finding,
the Chinese research team conducted two follow-up surveys at 4 and 11
months following the Sichuan earthquake. Indeed, the psychological eye
persisted for up to 11 months, with increased devastation again
predicting a lower concern for self-protective behavior. The only
factor that exhibited a change between the various survey time periods
was the estimated probability of an epidemic, which decreased in the
second wave, but rebounded by the third (however, the authors
acknowledge that this rebound could have been influenced by the
increased awareness of H1N1 at the time of the third survey.) An
interesting twist on the original effect had to do with a relational
variation — the psychological eye for potential health risks persisted
for primary relatives of disaster victims who hadn’t experienced the
event for themselves, but were presumably linked to the event through
their loved ones.

Two suggestions have been provided to account for the psychological
eye, namely “psychological immunization” [4] or “cognitive dissonance”
[5]. The former seemed like a plausible explanation after the initial
survey, since there is wide anecdotal documentation of “coping
measures” adopted by those who experience significant personal trauma
or hazards. However, the fact that subsequent surveys found relatives
experiencing a variation of the psychological eye, suggests that the
extent of personal experience, which strongly drives psychological
immunization, is not sufficient to account for the observed effect.
Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance is defined as an
uncomfortable psychological state in which two opposing cognitions are
experienced and need to ultimately be reconciled. In the example of
the psychological eye, the devastation of the area creates a sense of
danger, yet the individual may have no choice but to remain close by,
counter to the survival instinct. To reconcile these conflicting
beliefs, the individual may unconsciously lower self-assessed risk to
justify remaining in the area. Cognitive dissonance is very difficult
(impossible?) to modify in the field, as noted by the authors, and
thus, this proposal will remain more speculative until follow-up
studies in a controlled fashion can be done.

These surveys, and future studies following a similar model, are
important for policy makers when deciding how to best battle public
health risks, in order to better understand the psychology of those
who have suffered through a natural disaster. These data may even
assist in *predicting* the public response during the critical period
of time shortly after an event. When medical personnel are on-site
providing training and important information to the survivors
regarding how to best keep safe, no trivial tips or standards should
be taken for granted. Dealing with individuals who are grossly
under-estimating the potential health dangers they are facing calls
for repetitive teaching strategies and training, to constantly
reinforce the health risk message. Surveyors must maintain a cautious
and healthy skepticism when interviewing survivors and assessing areas
for aid because information provided and opinions given will not
likely reflect the dire situations being experienced. Finally,
maximizing the number of psychological (and not just medical) aid
workers when creating a relief budget will be critical. Taking
psychological and cognitive effects very seriously may even act
prophylactically to relieve some of the physical medical burden, if
simple health risks can be minimized or completely avoided.

One important question is whether this inverse relationship between
health safety attitudes and proximity to the disaster would remain
robust amongst the people of Haiti. Of course, reproducing the
psychological eye in multiple areas will be critical to ensure that
there is not a cultural confound influencing the results. But with
regards to other biases, rural China and even urban Haiti share many
of the same health risks, lack of resources and primative standards of
living. So from a socioeconomic standpoint, there is every reason to
believe that the victims of the recent Haitian earthquake, given the
hardships already associated with their lifestyle, would react in a
similar fashion. Hopefully this research on the Sichuan earthquake
will inspire similar surveys in Haiti.

As a neuroscientist, I remain interested in learning how these
phenomena may help us to better-understand how individuals process
information so as to become resilient to such horrible events, which
could easily include pandemics, famine and war. As a human being, I am
in awe of the will, strength and desire to overcome that are all
manifested by the people subjected to such horrors.

* 1. Li S, Rao L-L, Ren X-P, Bai X-W, Zheng R, et al. (2009)
Psychological typhoon eye in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. PLoS ONE 4:
* 2. Li S, Rao L-L, Bai X-W, Zheng R, Ren X-P, et al. 2010
Progression of the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” and Variations Since
the Wenchuan Earthquake. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9727.
* 3. Guedeney C, Mendel G (1973) L'angoisse atomique et les
centrales nucléaires: contribution psychanalytique et
sociopsychanalytique à l'étude d'un phénomène collectif. Paris: Payot.
* 4. Henderson AS, Montgomery IM, Williams CL (1972) Psychological
immunisation: a proposal for preventive psychiatry. Lancet May 20:
* 5. Festinger L (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance: Stanford
University Press

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