An emotional response to earthquakes

Winner of this year's Science of Risk Prize Helene Joffe

This year’s Lloyd’s Science of Risk winner revealed some fascinating “fatalistic” attitudes to earthquake risk.

The prestigious Science of Risk prize received some excellent submissions from a line-up of esteemed academics in 2013. Amongst them was a lead convening author for the fifth IPCC impact report, Professor Neil Adger, a runner-up for this year’s prize.

The competition, now in its fourth year, is designed to encourage links between the academic community and the insurance industry. Submissions fell into three categories: behavioural risk; geopolitical and societal risk; and technological and biological risk.

In her winning paper, Social Representations of Earthquakes: A Study of People Living in Three Highly Seismic Areas, Helene Joffe demonstrated that action to reduce earthquake risk is undermined by the feelings of anxiety and fatalism.

She compared attitudes to earthquake risk in three highly seismic cities – Seattle (US), Izmir (Turkey) and Osaka (Japan) – shedding light on what drives better preparatory action.

“I was delighted to receive the Lloyd’s Science of Risk prize,” said Joffe. “This acknowledges the value of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research.”

“It also highlights the worth of focusing not just on how people think about the risks they face but how they feel about them,” she continued. “Emotive and cultural factors play a key role in shaping risk-related behaviours, such as the purchase of earthquake insurance.”

Fatalism and anxiety

In her research Joffe found the most pessimistic outlook was in Izmir, Turkey, where respondents associated earthquakes with intense panic and fear. They considered human action to reduce the threat as pointless. They also displayed anger towards the state and construction authorities for failing to build more resilient infrastructure.

By contrast Seattle residents had more moderate levels of concern and also reported the greatest levels of protective action. However, even here participants had carried out less than half of 19 risk-reducing measures.

Turkey is one of the priority countries for Lloyd’s, as set out in Vision 2025. This was one reason why judges for the Science of Risk prize felt that Joffe’s analysis was particularly relevant. The judges liked how it considered three completely different cultures (US, Japan, Turkey), and thought that this approach was highly relevant to Vision 2025 aims.

“The winning paper examined earthquakes, which are a familiar peril to insurers,” said Trevor Maynard, Head of Exposure Management and Reinsurance, Lloyd’s. “What made it stand out, however, was its examination of the cultural contexts of people who live in earthquake-prone areas – reminding us that managing earthquake risk is about more than just how the ground shakes.”

“The Science of Risk Prize is invaluable for joining up the work of academics and insurers. By combining the insights of scientific research with business knowledge, insurers can take a robust and holistic view of risk.”

In addition to Maynard, judges for this year’s Science of Risk prize were:
• Dorian Blake: Head of Underwriting Review, QBE;
• Dr Dougal Goodman, CEO of The Foundation for Science and Technology;
• James Orr: Chief Actuary, General Insurance, Bank of England;
• Mel Goddard: Market Liaison Director, LMA; and
• Adrian Alsop: Director for Research and International Strategy, Economic and Social Research Council.

The judges thought Joffe’s paper was very interesting and well-researched. She also challenged insurers to think about cultural contexts for taking out cover, something that is not normally considered in natural catastrophe risk assessments.

The findings from her paper are useful to insurers in terms of understanding why people who seem to be at a high risk of earthquakes still don’t buy insurance. This can help them to tailor their approach to encouraging people to do so.

The judges also liked the fact Joffe’s research is encouraging people to mitigate their risks and increase their own survival.

Full list of winners and runners up:

Category winners:

Behavioural: Prof Helene Joffe – Social Representations of Earthquakes: A Study of People Living in Three Highly Seismic Areas (Overall winner)

Biological and Technological: Dr Rosemary Waring – Biomarkers of endocrine disruption: cluster analysis

Geopolitical and Societal: Prof Tim Bedford – Decision making for group risk reduction: dealing with epistemic uncertainty

Runners-up:

Behavioural: Prof Tom Ormerod – Informing the development of a fraud prevention toolset through a situated analysis of fraud investigation expertise

Biological and Technological: Dr Francesco Montomoli – Geometrical Uncertainty and Film Cooling: Fillet Radii

Geopolitical and Societal: Prof Neil Adger – Changing social contracts in climate change adaptation

Find out more about Lloyd's Science of Risk Research Prize

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