The Ostrich Effect - How it impacts retreat living

By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner

This post begins a series on the critical “must-haves” of off grid retreat living for individuals with a preparedness mindset.  These articles can serve as a refresher for long-time retreat owners who, due to age-related  or health issues, are developing their inventory of unique homestead features in order to showcase their property for sale. They are also written as a primer for would-be homesteaders considering their first rural property purchase.  But we’ll begin with a discussion of a psychological phenomenon that these groups, both buyers and sellers, can often fall victim to – each in their own way.  It’s called the Ostrich effect.

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It’s a common natural occurrence with several other names, like analysis paralysis, normalcy bias, incredulity response and what some EMTs call negative panic.  In a seriously stressful situation, the Ostrich effect causes people to enter a state of denial where they underestimate the possibility of a disaster actually happening, and ignore its effects on their life and property.  The result is a total inability or unwillingness to act – total inertia – the state of oblivion. It’s a mindset that nothing will really happen to you, but if it does, it will be okay.  This is the antithesis of being organized, geared up and ready.

You gotta be kidding

With serious new threats to America’s national and cyber security emerging weekly, it’s hard to believe that the majority of our citizens can actually be oblivious to the looming cloud of uncertainty around them.  According to a recent Washington Examiner report, DC’s national security figures and other top officials from three-letter agencies are flocking to backwoods doomsday camps, like Fortitude Ranch in West Virginia, which promise armed protection, preparedness training, and a year’s supply of food.  The report said DC insiders joined after “waking up” to the “inevitable” potential of a national crisis from an attack, financial meltdown or political violence.  I guess most folks might see this as information overload, fake news or maybe we’re all comfortably numb.  But still, how can so many people lack the basic awareness or consciousness that serious dangers are on the horizon (nuclear attack, EMP, virus epidemic or financial collapse)? How can they ignore the obvious need to make some basic preparations in order to prevent major suffering for themselves and their families?  The answer is…the population in the state of oblivion appears to be growing exponentially.

Most people are effected

This state of oblivion may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare themselves to avoid disasters. About 70% of people reportedly display inertia when faced with disasters. Of the remaining 30 percent, half of them freak out, while the remainder demonstrates presence of mind and takes proper action.  Experts identify three phases of response by people in disasters: Denial, Deliberation and Decisive Moment.  In general, failure to act quickly and decisively in a disaster usually leaves you on the wrong side of the grass.

The paralysis can manifest itself in assorted tragedies, ranging from common vehicle wrecks to global extinction-level events. Researchers theorize that it’s caused by the way the brain processes new information. Stress slows this process, and when the brain cannot find an acceptable solution, it fixates or defaults to a response that can result in unnecessary injury or death in a disaster.

Cause and effect

The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans. Even if adequately prepared, people suffering the Ostrich effect often refuse to leave their threatened homes. This paralysis can cause people to drastically underestimate the effects of a disaster and assume that everything will be all right.

When the Ostrich effect strikes, people think that they will be safe despite government warnings from the radio, television, or personal alerts from their neighbors.  They refuse to heed new warnings and fail to evacuate. History shows that most people don’t evacuate, and this inaction, caused by the Ostrich effect, can result in unnecessary casualties.

Examples of paralysis

Examples of how the Ostrich effect can cause great loss of life and property are part of our history. The Ostrich effect explains why thousands of people refused to evacuate New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached and why at least 70% of 9/11 survivors spoke with others before leaving. Despite advance predictions and evacuation warnings, the people of New Jersey underestimated the danger and paid a heavy price during Hurricane Sandy.  Officials at the steamship line made insufficient preparations to evacuate passengers on the Titanic.  Passengers refused evacuation orders because they underestimated the odds of a worst-case scenario and minimized its potential impact. Similarly, Japanese experts connected with the Fukushima nuclear power plant were strongly convinced that a multiple reactor meltdown could never occur.

More recently, nearly 9,000 wildfires tore through California in 2017, burning 1.2 million acres of land and destroying more than 10,800 structures and killing at least 46 people.  The Thomas Fire, which scorched more than 280,000 acres across Southern California, is the largest in California history.  Firefighters gave sad reports of hapless homeowners who, paralyzed by the Ostrich effect, failed to evacuate and perished.  Forty-six people died and at least that many were injured by these fires which caused more than $180 billion in damage.  

Other disasters elicit similar reactions.  We simply expect life to go on as it always has, and our brains are wired to accept only that.  Those of us who believe in preparedness, whether newbies or veterans, know the frustration of trying to convince friends and loved ones that the future is not all that secure.  Controlled by the Ostrich effect, our brains are working hard to deal with terrifying eventualities and escalating situations with negative outcomes that we just can’t accept.  But the threats are real and they remain.

How we fight back

Our logical response to combating the Ostrich effect is to condition our brains to prepare and to survive.  That’s why we seek or build secure retreats for our families in the first place.  We educate ourselves on past events and how people survived with contingency plans (everyone used to have a Plan B).  We focus on the most important reasons for living – triggers – that support our preservation efforts.  We remain aware of our environment - situational awareness – so that we react more quickly and decisively as needed.

How is this relevant to retreat living?

As a preparedness-minded individual, you’ve no doubt made the connection here.  For those who recognize a need to prepare a safe retreat location to which you can evacuate your family in case of a major disaster, you are aware of the overpowering inertia caused by the Ostrich effect and you know you need to address it. For those who already have secure retreats, have recognized the challenges of your ever-advancing age, but have no family property perpetuation plan, you certainly recognize that Ostrich inertia must be overcome in order for you to liquidate your retreat investment and obtain needed medical and other age-related assistance.  There are helpful resources available to assist in both these pursuits.

None of us want to think we’re in a state of denial. Nevertheless, stories about the deadly results of the Ostrich effect are far too common to dismiss.  To prevent its undesirable consequences in our lives, we need to recognize it exists and address it together, as a family, and take positive actions that can minimize the impacts of potential disasters, large and small.  Preventing the paralysis of the Ostrich effect can literally save your lives.

The oldest lesson learned

Failure to plan is planning to fail. History has pointed out countless times that when our society fails to plan and prepare for emergencies, there are societal breakdowns that lead to devastation. You only need to open an old history book to see the pages of disasters and the numbers of lives lost due to lack of preparation and inaction caused by the Ostrich effect.  If you have read this far, you have an interest in taking action regarding a safe retreat to provide shelter, sustenance and security for your family in some sort of disaster.  Do not procrastinate any longer.  Overcome your inertia.  Make a plan to find, build or sell your retreat.  Are you ready to take action this year or will you remain comfortably numb?