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The Ostrich Paradox

Why We Underprepare for Disasters

Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther

“The Ostrich Paradox boldly addresses a key question of our time: Why are we humans so poor at dealing with disastrous risks, and what can we humans do about it? It is a must-read for everyone who cares about risk.”

—Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

We fail to evacuate when advised. We rebuild in flood zones. We don’t wear helmets. We fail to purchase insurance. We would rather avoid the risk of “crying wolf” than sound an alarm.

Our ability to foresee and protect against natural catastrophes has never been greater; yet, we consistently fail to heed the warnings and protect ourselves and our communities, with devastating consequences. What explains this contradiction?

In The Ostrich Paradox, Wharton professors Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther draw on years of teaching and research to explain why disaster preparedness efforts consistently fall short. Filled with heartbreaking stories of loss and resilience, the book addresses:

  • How people make decisions when confronted with high-consequence, low-probability events—and how these decisions can go awry
  • The 6 biases that lead individuals, communities, and institutions to make grave errors that cost lives
  • The Behavioral Risk Audit, a systematic approach for improving preparedness by recognizing these biases and designing strategies that anticipate them
  • Why, if we are to be better prepared for disasters, we need to learn to be more like ostriches, not less

Fast-reading and critically important, The Ostrich Paradox is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why we consistently underprepare for disasters, as well as private and public leaders, planners, and policy-makers who want to build more prepared communities.

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About the Authors

Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer, Frederick H. Ecker/MetLife Insurance Professor of Marketing and codirector, Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in a wide variety of professional journals and books, including the Journal of Consumer Research; Journal of Marketing Research; Journal of Risk and Uncertainty; Marketing ScienceManagement Science; and Risk Analysis. ... More

Howard Kunreuther

Howard Kunreuther, James G. Dinan Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy and codirector, Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His recent books include At War with the Weather (with Erwann Michel-Kerjan), winner of the Kulp-Wright Book Award from the American Risk and Insurance Association in 2011; Insurance and Behavioral Economics: Improving Decisions in the Most Misunderstood Industry (wit ... More

Praise

The Ostrich Paradox boldly addresses a key question of our time: Why are we humans so poor at dealing with disastrous risks, and what can we humans do about it?  It is a must-read for everyone who cares about risk.”

—Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

“At a time when we face looming short- and long-term risks as varied as terrorism, cyberattacks, and climate change, this timely book diagnoses the innate psychological barriers to effective disaster planning and mitigation. Drawing on a variety of historical lessons and integrating insights into psychology, the authors prescribe practical approaches to disaster preparation. The Ostrich Paradox is a must-read, whether you are protecting the nation or your own family.”

Michael Chertoff, Former United States Secretary of Homeland Security

The Ostrich Paradox is an essential, sobering read for anyone interested in assessing and responding to tomorrow’s hazards today. Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther don’t just help us understand why we don’t prepare for disasters as we should, they also show us how to alter those behaviors and improve preparedness.”

Alan Schnitzer, Chief Executive Officer, The Travelers Companies, Inc.

“Good things typically come in threes. In The Ostrich Paradox, however, Meyer and Kunreuther skillfully distill a large body of recent psychological insights on the barriers to action in the face of potential peril into four steps of a behavioral risk audit and into four guiding principles to ensure preventive action.”

Elke U. Weber, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University

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