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"I'm not worried!": What hurricane evacuation decisions tell us about consumer behavior

Dorian is coming. Some guy on the radio living in the Carolinas was asked if he would evacuate. “I’ve been through three hurricanes before,” he said, “and all we got was some heavy rain, so I’m not too worried about this one.”

I hope this guy ends up OK. But whether he does or not has nothing to do with what he remembers happening before. This year’s hurricanes don’t get a pep talk from last year’s hurricanes before heading out. Hurricanes don’t coordinate on social media. And acting independently, hurricanes aren’t all the same, so they’re not going to behave as though they are.

The only way to know if the guy on the radio made the right choice to stick it out is to look at the science and draw a thoroughly educated conclusion. Experts run predictive models including all variables they think could impact a hurricane’s path and severity. The weather is messy (like life), so hurricane behavior is hard to predict with certainty, but scientists can come up with pretty educated and thoughtful guesses, and they are probably more comfortable than most with the idea that there’s no guarantee.

But most of us aren’t comfortable with no guarantees. It’s natural for humans to crave certainty. Without it, we don’t know what to do. We’re stuck in our decisions.

Unfortunately, when we aren’t certain, we seek a semblance of certainty by relying on mental short-cuts.

One short-cut people use is to rely on relevant evidence immediately available in our memories. The guy on the radio can easily remember the last few hurricanes. But he doesn’t as easily recall hurricanes that weren’t supposed to be that bad but that ended up catastrophic (Hurricane Harvey). He doesn’t know much about the variables that impact hurricanes (water and air temperature), so this sort of information doesn’t factor into his analysis.

Short story, he doesn’t exercise due diligence in deciding whether to evacuate or not. He rests his decision on only what he remembers. And while I might worry about him, I can’t judge him. He’s human. This is what humans do.

Consumers do this too. For example, a consumer might say, “I’ve bought two air purifiers already, and they don’t work too well, so I’ll just stick to allergy medication.” Some air purifiers aren’t great, but others are very effective. Allergy medication alleviates symptoms, but people suffer side effects that may not immediately come to mind. A consumer can’t know for sure what best solves their problem without doing thorough research. But they take short-cuts and only rely on evidence that they remember.

Or, a consumer might say, “The last three smartphones I bought from [insert brand] were awesome, so I know that brand is the best.” Some smartphone brands are indeed awesome, but others may be better – or better for that particular consumer. A consumer can’t know this unless they go out and shop, do the research, and compare (there are new ones/ features each year). But they take a short-cut and only rely on evidence that immediately comes to mind, often forgetting the various ways in which their smartphones may have failed them.

Consumers do this sort of thing all the time, for a lot of different products and services. You can’t blame them, and it’s hard to make them change. I mean… they’re human.

Too few consumer research studies focus on consumer recall. But businesses may do well to ask what about them is memorable and what isn’t? What product features stick in peoples’ memories and which don’t? What information do consumers easily remember when shopping for a product or service, and what do they forget? What experiences stick in peoples’ minds? And how can businesses leverage this?

Understanding influences on consumer recall can give you the insights you need to be more memorable – as a product, service, or brand – and therefore more likely to be chosen. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend $40K on a market research study to understand how your consumers remember things. Existing social science research has a lot to say about human memory, and it’s just sitting there waiting to be mined – and applied.


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