Being sociable could save your life in a disaster

By David Ferguson
Saturday, May 18, 2013 15:04 EDT
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Christchurch NZ residents unload disaster supplies via Shutterstock
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According to a researcher, being sociable and connected to your neighbors could save your life in the event of an emergency. Writing for New Scientist magazine, Sociologist Robert Sampson said that an area’s social infrastructure can make a difference in the survival rate of citizens in a natural disaster or other emergency.

Sampson cited the 1995 Chicago heat wave, in which rates of survival varied wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the cohesiveness of the communities. Also, in the Kobe earthquake in Japan that same year, as well as the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of 2004, Sampson said that again and again, communities where neighbors knew each other and were familiar with each other’s habits showed higher percentages of survivors.

“These examples suggest the social infrastructure of a community plays a critical role in how prepared a city is when disaster strikes,” wrote Sampson in New Scientist. “Indeed, neighborhoods have an impact on a surprisingly wide variety of outcomes, including child health, high-school graduation, teen births, adult mortality, social disorder and even IQ scores.”

Sampson calls these manifestations of community cohesion “the enduring neighborhood effect.” In his research, his team tracked 6,000 families living in the Chicago area and studied the neighborhoods themselves.

They also conducted social cohesion experiments, such as the “lost letter” experiment, in which scientists test the rate at which strangers mail back stamped letters they find lying in the street. In some neighborhoods, no one mails the letters at all. In others, all the letters get mailed.

The team also looked at rates at which people having medical issues like heart attacks are given CPR by bystanders before paramedics arrive. In some communities, the researchers gathered data at community civic events like blood drives and fundraising for schools.

“This information,” Sampson said, “was combined with records on crime, violence, health, community organisations and population characteristics over 40 years.”

The study scored communities with high social cohesion, where people are “willing to intervene for the common good,” as having high “collective efficacy.” Researchers questioned residents about how willing their neighbors would be to intervene if a fight broke out in the street. They asked people how willing they were to help their neighbors and whether levels of trust between citizens were high or low.

“Even after accounting for poverty and kinship ties, collective efficacy was directly related to lower rates of violence, teenage pregnancy and social disorder within the community,” wrote Sampson.

Similarly, the team found that in terms of response to emergencies, communities with high collective efficacy quickly rallied to each other’s aid. People with generators shared them. People with food fed others. Citizens were more eager to volunteer to help others find shelter or, failing that, taking people into their own homes.

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of the book Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, said that ordinary people working together are the most important factor in surviving disasters.

After studying hundreds of plane crashes, embassy takeovers, train wrecks and natural disasters, Ripley wrote on her blog about a 2009 Washington, D.C. train crash that “it’s already clear that as in most sizeable emergencies, regular people did the hardest work in the most important moments—before rescue workers arrived.”

She wrote about the crash:

One eye witness told the Washington Post that people inside one of the wrecked cars were beating on the windows, trying to get out. Many were on their cell phones. As is so often the case in disasters, people did remarkable things for one another. Survivors report fear, confusion and kindness—but not panic.

Issues of community cohesion and willingness to help others “strike at the heart of a community’s capacity to respond in times of crisis,” Sampson said. “These disaster responses may determine survival, and we can measure the likelihood of them happening.”

[Photo of Christchurch, New Zealand residents unloading supplies after an earthquake via Lakeview Images / Shutterstock.com]

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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