This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A recurring theme in the media coverage of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan has been both admiration and surprise at the calm, orderly and cooperative way that the Japanese people have responded to the tragedy.
The Japanese response is, indeed, admirable and a striking demonstration of the strength and generosity of the human spirit, but it is not nearly as surprising as many seem to suppose.
Sociological research over several decades demonstrates that disasters typically bring out the best not the worst in people. Disaster survivors tend to respond in overwhelmingly "prosocial" ways: They remain calm, make rational decisions and cooperate with others to address immediate threats. For example, survivors often work around-the-clock, sometimes at serious risk to themselves, to help and rescue others.
Most people who are rescued after an earthquake, flood or other disaster, are saved by their families, neighbors or fellow community members, not by the police, military or other government responders. Antisocial behavior such as looting and violence is the exception, rather than the rule.
Yet, most of us seem inclined to believe that disasters inevitably turn many average, law-abiding citizens into criminals. We believe that human behavior in the aftermath of a disaster plays out like a typical disaster movie script, full of chaos, human depravity and helpless victims who await rescue by an extraordinary hero who overcomes these base, innate human instincts.
Thus, when we see the people of Japan exhibiting exactly the sort of calm, cooperative behavior that sociologists predict, commentators explain this behavior away by arguing that the Japanese people are somehow different from us. They search for explanations in Japanese culture and its emphasis on discipline, orderliness and community. And they point to New Orleans' experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as evidence that individualist Americans do not respond to disasters with nearly as much grace.
What these commentators fail to recognize is that the reports of looting and violence in post-Katrina New Orleans were greatly exaggerated. Most of those reports were discredited and retracted by the very news outlets that originally told tales of horrific violence and widespread looting. But the truth has never caught up with the myth. And those myths are now being resurrected with a vengeance as a convenient foil for the Japanese response.
When we indulge and reinforce the belief that Americans are likely to respond to disasters with panic, selfishness, looting and even violence, we do ourselves a serious disservice. Our expectation of looting and violence can lead to a government response that mistakenly overemphasizes security risks at the expense of crucial humanitarian relief efforts.
Exaggerated reports of looting after Katrina convinced the mayor of New Orleans to divert some 1,500 police officers from life-saving search-and-rescue missions to anti-looting patrol. Moreover, exaggerated rumors of looting and violence at the New Orleans Superdome delayed delivery of critical food, water and sanitation supplies to survivors who had taken refuge there, as nervous responders waited to amass large military escorts before delivering the supplies.
Based on the exaggerated reports, first-responders expected to be fired upon by seething mobs; instead, they were greeted by cheering crowds.
The mistaken belief that natural disasters will usually engender widespread looting and violence can also color individual behavior.
Most of the serious violence that actually did occur in Katrina's aftermath was apparently due to extreme measures taken by police and vigilantes, in an effort to protect themselves against the largely imaginary threat that their neighbors would degenerate into criminals.
These misconceptions may also lead to a "bunker mentality," common among survivalists, that the right way to respond to disasters is to hole up underground, with a stockpile of supplies and the ammunition to protect it.
We need to recognize that it is not just culture that is bringing the Japanese people together in the face of this heart-breaking tragedy it is also the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of terrible disaster. And we should expect that the same would happen here.
We shouldn't be naïve, of course. Disasters do not make angels of men. But neither do they make devils of good people.
Lisa Grow Sun is an associate professor of law at Brigham Young University. She is a coauthor of "Disaster Law and Policy," and her exploration of the disaster myth of looting and violence is forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review.