Earthquakes, History and Cognitive/ Behavioral Biases

Earthquakes, History and Cognitive/ Behavioral Biases

Jun 4th, 2015

Earthquakes, History and Cognitive/ Behavioral Biases

In 1570 AD a major earthquake hit the city of Ferrara tuck in between Florence and Venice in Italy. The seismic swarm destroyed over 40% of the buildings, but caused little harm to inhabitants.

"Bundesarchiv Bild 102-10191, Italien, Erdbeben-Katastrophe"

“Bundesarchiv Bild 102-10191, Italien, Erdbeben-Katastrophe”

I can only imagine how the decision makers (reigning family) of the time were torn for the right course of action in the aftermath of the disaster. Here is my take on the different opinions that could have been expressed, linked to some common cognitive/behavioral biases:

  • The city was fine up until now! so let’s rebuild and behave just like nothing happened. After all we are almost all alive. (Survivor biasOstrich)
  • Since the city was fine until now and the earthquake just happened another one wouldn’t be due for a long time therefore we will be safe. (Anchoring effect, Denial)
  • We must have angered the Lord and all the Saints (actually inhabitants put the blame on the reigning family) so we have to build a church and force the population to ask forgiveness and set-up a yearly procession. (Illusion of control, Prayer)
  • We need to relief the victim and quickly rebuild all the buildings in order to stay popular and avoid public disapproval. (Hyperbolic discounting, Short term thinker)

And then there are facts

And then there is “factual” history: the city mandated a crisis team including physicists, philosophers and many “experts in various accidents” to conduct research about earthquakes and their effects. History does not say if it was Short Term or Long Term thinking. A 56 years old architect named Pirro Ligorio lead the team and produced what is known to be the first scientific effort of this kind in human history.

Pirro Ligorio Drawing

Pirro Ligorio Drawing

Ligorio (and his Team) blamed for the extensive damages the inappropriate techniques and bad materials used in building the city’s edifices. After visiting L’Aquila, Mirandola, both hit by recent quakes in Italy, and seeing the images of Nepal’s historic buildings we can only agree with those five hundred years old conclusions.

Seismic resistant design and geoethics were born

In the last part of the treatise, Rimedi contra terremoti per la sicurezza degli edifici (Remedies against earthquakes for building security), Ligorio presented design plans for a shock-proof building, also a first in the world in terms of scientific anti-seismic approach. Many of those empirical findings are consistent with contemporary anti-seismic practices: among them the correct dimensioning of main walls, use of better and stronger bricks as well as elastic structural joints and iron rods. In another treatise Libro o trattato de’ diversi terremoti (book or treatise on various earthquakes) Ligorio defined the problem:

  • Why are houses collapsing during earthquakes?
  • Why are we not defending ourselves/mitigating the effects of earthquakes?

Ligorio postulated that earthquakes are not arcane and inescapable phenomena. Humans can deal with them rationally. He also stated that mitigating quakes’ effects is indeed a human “moral/ ethical” duty. Thus he proposed a residential structure that could resist horizontal (quake induced) forces in addition to vertical ones (loads). Humanity had to wait another enormous catastrophe. That was the 1755 AD Lisbon earthquake, to see another anti-seismic residential structure design: the Portuguese “gaiola”.

So, what is the morale of this story?

Generally we become Short Term thinkers, seldom Long Term Thinkers. That’s especially true in the aftermath of a catastrophe. It is enough to think for example at the:

  • recent Vueling/Lufthansa accident due to a suicidal pilot,
  • live Anthrax shipment from a US laboratory,
  • numerous flooding and fire/explosions events, including railroad accidents,
  • massive hacking and cyber-attacks to Sony, IRS etc.

Then once the dust has settled, we oftentimes revert to our good old negative stances (Ostrich, Denial, Prayer). We are full of complacence for “business as usual”. Few are the cases of proactive Long Term Thinking stances (such as this example).

For these reason we need to ensure strategic, tactical and operational decision making is robust and transparent, ethically defensible, while considering  complexity, interdependencies and unplanned events.

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Category: Crisis management, Mitigations, Risk management

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