Overcoming Cognitive Biases in an Emergency

Article 4 min
Professor Claudine Jaenichen of FEMA makes the case for design standards that increase information retention.

There is no greater mandate than to get emergency preparation information into the hands of those who need it. The key to true disaster preparedness is knowing who your audience is, how they need to receive the information and the best retention methods.

In her PrepTalk, a series of videos provided by FEMA, Professor Claudine Jaenichen discusses some research techniques for achieving data-driven outcomes in terms of recall. Follow along with her slides by going to her PrepTalk page on the FEMA website.

What Makes This a Great Example?

Jaenichen gets into the nuts and bolts of why her methodology works. Instead of suggesting some products to have on hand, she makes a strong case for understanding who she is preparing, how they might respond and how she could best reach them before, during and after an emergency.

Create Personas

It is not enough to know your audience groups. In order to connect with individuals, VI personnel need to consider all the threads that make up the fabric of a community. Jaenichin suggests creating unique personas that represent composites within the community.

Consider, for example:

  • A visually impaired adult
  • A young soldier without a car
  • A retiree with mobility issues
  • A caregiver with multiple-aged children
  • A couple caring for aging parents
  • A tourist unfamiliar with street names

Jaenichin explains that personas should represent different socio-economic groups because each persona is actually representing thousands within the community. They should have different responsibilities, different backgrounds and different education that is relevant to the community. She gives them each a name so that she doesn't forget the final reader who will ultimately use the information. Crisis planers can "invite everyone into the room." What would Joe do? How would Andrea react? Keeping personas present when planning makes it harder to skip over their needs.

Understand Unconscious Personalities

Jaenichin points out that typically, people are not thinking about emergencies until confronted with them and may or may not be prepared. They may have a whole case of water in their car or just a single bottle. They may have a day's worth of diapers or a month.

When confronted, however, their unconscious personality emerges and dictates their next move. They might freeze, jump right into action or choose to act with a group ("my neighbor is not evacuating, so I'm staying, too"). They might experience tunnel vision and become dead-set on following a routine. For example, they might think, "a tsunami is coming, so I should move the car," even though that puts them right in the path of floodwaters. The military understands that unconscious personalities are important; Navy Seals push their recruits to determine what their unconscious personality might be in order to trust that the Seal will respond in the right way during a crisis.

Because personas may experience any number of cognitive triggers during an emergency, they are less able to take in information. Establishing emergency preparedness will help avoid poor decision-making related to cognitive paralysis, crowd psychology or tunnel vision, and guide the community to safety. Consider these unconscious personalities while creating emergency materials and communication methods.

Retention Depends on Distribution Method

In her research, Jaenichin reviewed different distribution methods to ascertain the best retention of information after 24 hours had passed. Visual messaging had the best recall over time, and written was the best performing initially. To combine the two, Jaenichin landed on text messaging and a refined approach to visuals to enhance recall. Jaenichin also points out the importance of metadata, so the right information is tied to the correct search terms. Think about the data and research needed to best serve the community.

Eliminate the Unnecessary

In her work, Jaenichin critically reviews products for effectiveness. Her research has revealed that consistency, including visual consistency, increases retention. She likens it to branding. Seeing the Starbucks logo easily reminds consumers of the product. For example, to increase retention for hurricane evacuation routes, it's not necessary to include a map of the entire state. Focus on what routes will be closed and which will be open so your community can make fast decisions based on what they recall. When creating a tsunami map, Jaenichin eliminated unnecessary clutter by removing the foothills. Use the tools such as colors, line weights, arrows, wayfinding markers to create visual instructions.

Lessons Learned

Jaenichin makes it abundantly clear that even existing preparedness materials need work to ensure they're effective. By researching who will receive the information, some of the cognitive triggers that will affect behavior when confronted, as well as which method of delivery delivers the best retention and recall, VI professionals can establish the foundation for strong communication and good community response.

Follow her lead and review your own communication materials for cohesiveness, accessibility, consistency and retention.