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Personal Finance FAQ

Why You Won’t be Prepared for the Next Crisis Unless You Act Now

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.
–Soren Kierkegaard

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
–Issac Asimov

On August 23, 2011, I was in Washington, D.C. for some business development meetings. The meetings were scheduled for the morning, and had gone well, so I was treating myself to a nice late lunch at my favorite restaurant in Washington, D.C. (and probably one of my favorites in the world). I had just finished wolfing down the mussels with chorizo – what I always order there – and was waiting for the waiter to come to take my card to pay for the check.

Suddenly, the building started shaking. People very quickly headed for the door.

I was sitting pretty close to the door myself.

However, instead of heading to the exit, like a prudent, sane person would do, what did I do?

I grabbed the check and my card and wandered around the restaurant to find someone to take my card and pay because I didn’t want them to think that I was pulling a dine and dash.

During a 5.8 earthquake, the largest earthquake in Virginia since 1897, I wasn’t concerned about my life. I was concerned about paying the check.

Why?

Because earthquakes happen on the WEST coast, yo!

Unsurprisingly, I was unable to find anyone to take the check, because they were already outside with the rest of the sane people!

Realizing that I couldn’t pay the bill, I went outside.

I did go back in and pay the bill once the earth stopped rumbling.

As I was driving home, I was wondering why in the world I acted the way I did.

When I was deployed to Bosnia, one of the first things that we did was drill on going into a bomb bunker in our base camp. When a mine exploded near our basecamp, we all scrambled to the bomb bunker. When the Navy bombed our basecamp, we dove for cover, and then immediately locked down the basecamp.

It wasn’t until I read the article from economist Tim Harford, “Why we fail to prepare for disasters” that I pieced the two disparate reactions together.

In Bosnia, we drilled to prepare for such events. We’d talked about mines going off. We didn’t talk about the Navy bombing our basecamp, but we were in the mindset that we could be a target for people who wanted to make a point. So, when those events happened, drilled reactions took over. We didn’t really think, because we had the muscle memory of what to do.

However, when an earthquake hit in Washington D.C., it was an event so foreign to me that I had no similar reaction to call upon. Instead, I became concerned about being perceived as someone who was pulling a dine and dash rather than getting the heck out and going to safety.

Given that there hadn’t been an earthquake that big in the region in more than a century, my lack of mental preparedness was unsurprising.

But, as Harford explains in his article, pandemics like coronavirus and other disasters are pretty easy to foresee. Sure, we didn’t see the exact event that was coming, but even back in 2002, there were articles and exercises about an airborne, Spanish flu like contagion that kills 50 million people and kneecaps the global economy by over $3 trillion.

He goes on to explain five different behavioral biases that prevent us from acting to protect ourselves from things that we know are coming. Sometimes, the “we know this is coming” is even quite visible, like a hurricane barreling down on you when you live in a coastal town, but we still don’t react, until we find ourselves two hours away from the frontal wall of the hurricane and unable to get out because all of the roads are either jammed or closed.

There’s one that I want to focus on, which, to me, seems particularly salient in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

How Our Actions in a Crisis Freeze Us

Erica Kuligowski and S.M.V. Gwynne of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology evaluated what would need to be done to evacuate a population during a spreading fire.

They observed that, when a fire occurs in a building, people have a tendency to believe that they are safe. Furthermore,

[w]hen occupants are faced with ambiguous and/or inconsistent cues (i.e. cues that are difficult to understand or interpret), [this behavior] is likely to extend for longer periods of time while the occupants remain inside the building.

This phenomenon is called “normalcy bias.” When faced with a crisis, we want to believe that we are safe, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Furthermore, when faced with imminent danger but no clear signals of what to do, we tend to want to gather information, and we want to prepare rather than act.

Once we finally do decide to move, we look for familiar paths and fall into comfortable actions wherever we can. So, if we take the elevator all of the time, our instinctive reaction is to go to the elevator to evacuate. As a result,

[a]ll of these actions and tendencies are likely to delay people from reaching safety and take certain periods of time to complete.

It is possible, having experienced a disaster, to overcome the psychological biases and prepare for the next one. Harford points to the example of Singapore, who, after being at the forefront of SARS, adapted and prepared much more thoroughly for the next pandemic. Even they had holes in their preparedness.

In the middle of an event, we’re the most aware of its impacts and what we would do better next time. According to Columbia University’s E. Tory Higgins, we’re more likely to act on an event when it has accessibility and salience. Accessibility means that we can compare the event to something else that we know. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impacts, we mentally compare the impacts to the Great Recession and the Great Depression. Salience means that what is happening is top of mind. It’s hard for the coronavirus pandemic not to be top of mind when most of us are still under a shelter in place, it’s on the news and television, and our daily activities of life, like restaurants and sports, are seriously curtailed.

Therefore, if you want to make sure that you’re not negatively impacted by the next [FILL IN THE BLANK HORRIBLE NEGATIVE EVENT], you should act now. If you take five minutes to review what’s happened to you as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll be able to outline concrete steps that you could have done differently in anticipation of this economic shock.

If you don’t act now, not only planning, but also putting that plan into action, as Harford laments, it’s easy to quickly forget what it was like to be in the last crisis. New Orleans dodged a bullet with Hurricane Ivan, having stared down the barrel of a disaster, only to collectively breathe a huge sigh of relief that nothing happened, then went on with life as usual.

And Hurricane Katrina hit.

They could have acted, but they did not, and there was manifold unnecessary misery.

We’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic now. We know the pain. It’s salient and it’s accessible. We know what actions to take to prepare for the next crisis.

However, if you don’t put that plan into motion now, you’re destined to repeat history the next time a crisis hits you.

Harford ends his article with a somber warning:

What if we’re thinking about this the wrong way? What if instead of seeing Sars as the warning for Covid-19, we should see Covid-19 itself as the warning?

Next time, will we be better prepared?

What are you doing now to make sure that you’re not harmed by the next financial crisis? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

By Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business.

You can read more about him in the About Page.

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