“Why should I care?”: The psychology of crisis preparedness

By Dr Claudia van den Heuvel


Our perceptions of the likelihood of an event happening are based on how much emotion we feel when thinking about that situation. This is one of the tenets that Daniel Kahneman explores in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow, which has interesting connotations for risk perception, emergency preparedness and crisis response. 

No matter how objective intelligent and rational people like to believe they are, emotion always affects how the human brain processes reality. Understanding the psychology of risk perception can help inform how best to train and exercise crisis management teams and prepare them for the unthinkable.  

Psychological studies have shown that estimates of risks are skewed by how frightening, or emotional, those risks are. For example, “death by accidents” was judged as 300 times more likely than “death by diabetes”, even though the true ratio is 1:4. This is because the idea of dying in an accident is:

  1. much more available to us (through frequent exposure via news stories, films, etc.), and
  2. much more frightening or emotional than the thought of dying from diabetes (the portrayal of accidental death as unexpected, dramatic and often gory).

So what does that mean for crisis management training and exercising crisis response? It tells us that training exercises are more subjectively ‘real’ and believable the more emotionally involved the participants get. Using a highly emotive scenario (a ‘death by accident’ equivalent, such as a terrorist attack) will evoke ‘reality’ more readily for participants than perhaps a more likely scenario that is less engaging or emotional (a ‘death by diabetes’ equivalent, such as a gas leak). It’s no use using an objectively high-risk scenario (no matter how large the potential impact) if it doesn’t cause a sharp intake of breath from the crisis management team. This is especially true of the top level strategic teams of organisations; we all know how valuable their time is, and it can be difficult to prove to them the relevance of a day spent exercising their response to a non-engaging (and therefore non-convincing) crisis.

An aide to achieving “buy in” and getting people engaged is to interview some of the top level team and find their “wicked” problem – the one that keeps them up at 3 a.m., and then designing a scenario around that issue. Confronting executives with their worst nightmare and playing on their emotions ensures that the simulated crisis scenario remains credible, and that a sense of ‘reality’ pervades their response. Emotion is the reason immersive simulation exercises are the most engaging of all types of exercise – the extra added layer of realistic complexity, risk and pressure excites emotion.  Psychological studies have demonstrated this convincingly by showing how people’s heart rates shot up and palms started sweating during a crisis simulation exercise (see the work of Jonathan Crego).

So, struggling to engage senior management in crisis management? Run them through a highly emotional and therefore innately realistic scenario. That way, the team will take the training seriously, and engage with the exercise.  This way, they will be strategically and psychologically prepared should a real incident arise – any crisis on the horizon will be easier to spot, more manageable and infinitely less threatening to those involved.

High Fidelity Simulation Exercises For Training Strategic Crisis Management

Last month I discussed the ‘availability heuristic’ and its significance in the psychology of crisis preparedness – another cornerstone of Daniel Kahneman’s work – in my blog post Thinking the Unthinkable, and I discuss immersive crisis simulation exercises in more detail in the white paper High Fidelity Simulation Exercises for Training Strategic Crisis Management

About ClaudiavdHeuvel

Steelhenge Project Manager and co-author of Steelhenge's thought leadership series. With a PhD in crisis response, my specialist subjects include leadership, decision-making, exercises and terror attacks.

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