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Effect of Increased
Earthquake Knowledge

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1997-3

The Effect of Increased Earthquake Knowledge on Perceived Preventability of Earthquake Damage

Francisco Hurnen, John McClure, Department of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, P. O. Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand. Email: John.Mcclure@vuw.ac.nz
Keywords: earthquakes, perceived preventability, preparation, information

Francisco Hurnen, John McClure

Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand

Author Note
We thank Andrew Charleson and Richard White for their generous assistance in the development of the questionnaire, and Ann Weatherall and Anthony Taylor for valuable comments. Correspondence should be addressed to John McClure, Department of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, P. O. Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand. Email may be addressed to: John.Mcclure@vuw.ac.nz


Using a methodology adapted from Bostrom, Fischhoff, and Morgan (1992), citizens' (N = 96) knowledge about how to prevent damage from earthquakes was compared to knowledge extracted from expert sources. The gaps or misconceptions in knowledge provided a basis for information on earthquake damage prevention. There was an increase in perceived preventability, indicating support for the hypothesis that changes in perceived preventability occur when specific targeted information is introduced. Prior earthquake knowledge correlated with earthquake preparation, but perceived preventability did not relate to prior knowledge or preparation for earthquakes. These findings are discussed in terms of their theoretical implications and the application to disaster preparation programs.

The effect of increased earthquake knowledge on perceived preventability of earthquake damage

    Earthquakes have long been known as potentially destructive natural events. The recent Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake killed 5,470 people and produced 110 billion (USA) dollars in damage (Valery, 1995). Such destruction and loss of life is not an inevitable consequence of a major earthquake. As a physical event, an earthquake like the one in Kobe cannot be prevented, but as a disaster it can be (De Marchi, 1991). As engineers are aware, damage from earthquakes can be greatly offset by adequate precautions, such as strengthening existing buildings and using earthquake resistant designs in new buildings (Normile, 1995; Yanev, 1974). Even modest preparations can make a difference in a large earthquake.

    Despite the usefulness of preventive measures, people often fail to prepare for earthquakes. In poorer societies this may reflect a lack of resources, but wealthier societies are often less prepared than they could be. Surveys in "at risk" locations have highlighted this lack of preparation. Jackson and Mukarjee (1974) reported that 37% of San Francisco residents had done nothing to prepare for an earthquake. Similar findings were obtained in Los Angeles (Jackson, 1981). These low levels of preparation are clearly undesirable in areas subject to high seismic risk.

    There is value in understanding factors that influence the adoption of preventative strategies, particularly for organisations whose goal is to get citizens to prepare for earthquakes (Smith, 1993). Several psychological factors influence people's preparation (Faupel & Styles, 1993). A propensity to take risks limits preparation for hazards and estimates of the probability of a hazard (Banerjee & Gillespie, 1994; Britton, 1981; Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1982; Sorensen, 1983). Preparation for hazards is also hampered by unwarranted optimism, where people believe they will be personally immune in a disaster (Burger & Palmer, 1992; Greening & Dollinger, 1992; Lehman & Taylor, 1987). Denial is a related problem, in that denying the risk hinders preparation (See DeMan & Simpson- Housley, 1988; Karanci & Rustemli, 1995; Lehman & Taylor, 1987).

    The locus of control dimension also relates to hazard mitigation. People with an internal locus see damage from natural hazards as more preventable than those with an external locus and are more likely to take preventative action (Perry, Lindell, & Greene, 1982; Simpson-Housley & Bradshaw, 1978; Turner, Nigg, & Paz, 1986).

    Citizens appear to assume that because earthquakes are uncontrollable, so too are their effects (McClure & Williams, 1996). This generalisation may reinforce the feeling that there is little point in preparation. When they generalise from events that are controllable to events that are uncontrollable, they become helpless (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). Fatalism about earthquake damage (Turner et al., 1986), illustrates helplessness. Turner et al. (1986) showed that a fatalistic orientation towards earthquakes and their consequences disposed people against making preparations or reacting to earthquake warnings.

    An important issue is whether educative programs can reduce fatalism. Mass media comprise a key source of public information about disasters (Sorensen, 1983; Perry, Lindell, & Green, 1982). Both television and printed media can play a role (Rattien, 1990). Education programs are advocated to inform the public and encourage hazard preparation (Slovic et al., 1982). However, it is important that these programs achieve the goals they are designed to accomplish. Many public information programs appear to assume that by presenting information on hazard risks and protective measures, the desired preparation will occur (Smith, 1993). Researchers suggest that only well-designed education programs will obtain public support for hazard mitigation (Smith, 1993; Slovic et al., 1982).

    Research on public education is somewhat inconclusive . Some studies have shown no connection between education and behaviour (e.g., Saarinen, 1979), whereas others have shown a connection between education programs and the adoption of prevention strategies (Fitzpatrick & Mileti, 1994). In regard to earthquake preparation, there is little information on the impact of non-emergency public hazard education on risk perception and behaviour (Fitzpatrick & Mileti, 1994). Some authors have claimed that information on earthquake preparation has little impact on public perceptions of risk (Fitzpatrick & Mileti, 1994). Palm (1979) found that disclosure of property hazards (earthquake and flooding) had no effect on the selection and purchase of a home, and other factors such as size, architectural design and location were considered more important. Whether this results from an ignorance of the risks or a denial of the potential damage is unclear. However, research suggests that when the risks are known and the consequences of earthquakes are highlighted, earthquake preparation increases. Mulilis and Lippa (1990) employed earthquake warnings over a five month period to successfully increase earthquake preparedness.

     A key element in any information program is the quality of the information and the way it is presented. Some programs imply that all that is required is to convey the risk; the wisdom of preventative measures is assumed to be self-evident. This strategy fails to take account of citizens' actual knowledge. Where misjudgments of risk are greatest, people's errors can be traced to inadequate knowedge (Slovic et. al., 1982). Programs require more appreciation of citizens' knowledge (Bostrom, Fischhoff, & Morgan, 1992).

    One approach to this issue has attempted to examine connections between people's causal model of hazard damage and their perceptions of earthquake damage. McClure and Walkey (1995) investigated the relation of attributional complexity to perceptions of earthquake damage. Attributional complexity relates to the causal models people ascribe to hazards' effects. For example, a complex model may include not only the magnitude of the earthquake but factors such as building structure and soil type. In contrast, a simpler causal model may omit the factors that increase or reduce damage, and may reinforce a view of earthquakes as inevitably causing major damage (cf. Turner et al., 1986).

    McClure and Walkey (1995) examined whether people with more complex causal models of earthquakes judged earthquake damage more preventable than those with simpler models. Attributional complexity was defined in terms of the number of causes cited in unstructured explanations of general earthquake damage. Subjects judged the preventability of damage in scenarios which varied the distinctiveness of the damage. High distinctiveness scenarios presented exceptional damage, and low distinctiveness scenarios presented generalised damage. Where the damage was distinctive, neither the simple or the complex groups differed in how preventable they judged the damage. This suggests that both groups related the damage to some weakness in the building. However with non-distinctive (widespread) damage, those with more complex models saw the damage as more preventable. Helping people to see the range of causes that contribute to earthquake damage may lead people to see the damage as more preventable, and may also influence them to prepare more for earthquakes.

    In a related approach to causal models of hazards, Bostrom et al. (1992) examined the differences between expert and lay people's understandings of the same hazard . People's ability to respond to potential hazards or disasters reflects their understanding of the physical, chemical, and biological processes involved. Bostrom et al. (1992) developed a measure of citizens' knowledge about a particular hazard, Radon gas. They conducted open-ended interviews and a photograph-sorting exercise with experts and lay people to establish what they knew concerning the hazard potential of the gas. On this basis they constructed an expert influence diagram and compared experts and non-experts. This method clarified differences between expert and lay perceptions of the hazard. Non-experts' understanding of the Radon gas issue was often incomplete, imprecise, incoherent, or erroneous.

    In addition to assessing the Radon gas issue, this study also introduced a method for studying risk perceptions that could be applied to risk communications. Bostrom et al. (1992) claimed that the most useful knowledge is not summary estimates of risks, but substantive knowledge of how hazards have their effect. Determining what people know is the first step in assessing what people need to know. Duplicating what is already known is both superfluous and a waste of resources.

    The studies by McClure and Walkey (1995) and Bostrom et al. (1992) indicate the importance of taking account of people's specific knowledge about hazards. The present study combines aspects of McClure and Walkey's (1995) and Bostrom et al.'s (1992) analyses. The study follows up McClure and Walkey's (1995) suggestion that there may be value in increasing knowledge about earthquake damage. The study aimed to get participants to see a range of factors contributing to damage and to spell out the logic behind these factors. This procedure also incorporates Bostrom et al.'s (1992) idea that correcting misconceptions in knowledge may influence judgments about the preventability of hazard damage.

    We predicted that giving information about earthquake damage prevention after answering knowledge-based questions would increase judgments of preventability of earthquake damage. We also hypothesised positive relations between knowledge about earthquake damage, preparation for earthquakes, and judgments that earthquake damage is preventable.


    This study employed a modified version of the design used by Bostrom et al. (1992) to compare expert and lay understandings about natural disasters. The format was a questionnaire with an individual educative session . A knowledge-based structured questionnaire formed the basis for an assessment of lay knowledge. Answers to these questions served as a basis for the educative session.

    The study employed a total of 109 residents of a suburb, Tawa in Wellington, who were recruited over a three week period. Three were eliminated for failing to complete large portions of the questionnaire. Section 1 of the questionnaire was completed by 106 subjects (54 male, 52 female) 96 of whom also completed Section 2 (47 males, 49 females). Subjects' ages ranged from 21 to 72 years for the males (mean = 43 ) and 16 to 89 years for the females (mean = 42).

    The questionnaire contained two sections. Section 1 contained the questions on the perceived preventability of earthquake damage, earthquake knowledge questions, and an earthquake prevention checklist. Section 2 repeated the two questions on the perceived preventability of earthquake damage.

    Perceived preventability was measured by two questions adapted from McClure and Walkey's (1995) questionnaire: "As you may be aware, there have been a number of recent major earthquakes (e.g., Kobe in Japan and Northridge in California) that have led to major damage and loss of lives". 1) "How likely is it that something could have been done to prevent the damage and loss of life?". 2) "How difficult is to prevent damage to buildings in a major earthquake?". Likelihood was rated on a scale of 1 ("not very likely") to 5 ("highly likely"). These questions were included in both Sections 1 and Section 2 of the questionnaire. Their inclusion in Section 1 was to establish a baseline measure of perceived preventability, and their inclusion in Section 2 was to assess whether answering or discussing the knowledge questions in Section 1 changed perceived preventability.

    The earthquake knowledge section of the questionnaire adapted Bostrom et al.'s (1992) procedure of interviewing experts and mapping out an influence diagram. This study operationalised the consensus of expert opinion by constructing questions incorporating material from experts in damage prevention in earthquakes. This procedure follows studies that use structured questions to study thinking in complex domains (Jungermann, Schutz, & Thuring, 1988; Rousse & Morris, 1986).

    Initially, 40 questions were formulated using current information on preventing earthquake damage (BRANZ, 1991; Holmes, 1986; Key, 1988; Lagorio, 1990; Norwak & Galambos, 1990; Yanev, 1974). These questions related to home construction, building location and earthquake mitigation activities. The questions were piloted; unclear questions, and questions with extremely high or low scores (in correct answers) were removed. The remaining questions were then given to two experts, an architect, and a Professor of architecture specialising in earthquake damage prevention. These experts independently indicated the right answers to the various questions submitted. From the questions that both experts agreed on, 15 were chosen for the final questionnaire. Each question offered three possible answers "yes", "no" or "unsure". (See Appendix A). "Unsure" answers suggested that the subject had insufficient knowledge, and were coded as a wrong answer.

    The earthquake preparation checklist derived from the 'Wellington city Emergency Management Office booklet' "Emergency Planning Guide" (1995). Items were selected that specifically indicated earthquake preparation. For each item, respondents indicated whether they had taken the action : "yes" or "no". (See Appendix B).

    In addition to the questionnaire, the materials included photographs and diagrams relating to earthquake damage. Visual images were used because pictorial information in earthquake warning pamphlets evokes more response than non-pictorial information (Bostrom et al., 1992). Visual images were likely to create more interest and more easily convey the relevant information. (See Appendix B).

    Tawa residents were approached and asked if they would mind filling out a questionnaire on earthquakes and damage for a university research project. They were given a summary of the questionnaire, and told that after completing Section 1 it would be collected and Section 2 would be presented. When consent was given and any questions answered, Subjects completed Section 1 of the questionnaire. They were instructed to answer all questions. Upon completion, the answers to the earthquake knowledge questions were checked with the subject present, and additional information, including explanations of the correct answers, was presented. Section 1 of the questionnaire was then collected and Section 2 handed out and completed. The participants were then debriefed on the study.


    To establish whether perceived preventability changed as a result of completing the Section A of the questionnaire, paired comparison t-tests were performed. There was a significant increase in perceived preventability for both questions: General damage was judged as more preventable at Time 2 (M = 4.0) than at Time 1 (M = 3.4), t(95) = 6.74, p< .001; there was a similar results for Building damage: Time 2 (M = 3.5); Time 1 (M = 2.7), t(95) = 7.14, p< .001. These increases suggest that the procedure affected judgments that earthquake damage is preventable.

    A second analysis determined whether there were any differences between the two perceived preventability questions. Paired comparison t-tests showed that general damage (M = 3.4) was judged more preventable than building damage (M = 2.7) at Time1, t(95) = 5.48, p< .001, and at Time 2: general damage (M = 4.0); building damage (M=3.5), t(95) = 4.65, p < .001.

    Pearson product moment correlations were used to assess whether there were relationships between Earthquake Knowledge scores, Earthquake Preparation, and perceived preventability. A positive correlation between Earthquake Knowledge and Earthquake Preparation indicated that participants with more earthquake knowledge were more likely to be prepared for earthquakes,, r =.21, p< .05. However, there was no relationship between Earthquake Knowledge and perceived preventability at Time 1, either on the General damage preventability question, (r = .13, ns) or the Building damage preventability question,(r = .01, ns). There was also no relationship between Earthquake Preparation and perceived preventability at Time 1, either on the General damage preventability question, ( r = -.05, ns) or the Building damage preventability question, (r = - 0.11, ns).


    The present study investigated firstly whether an educative test of earthquake knowledge changed participants' ratings of the preventability of earthquake damage, and secondly whether were relations between earthquake knowledge, earthquake preparation, and judgments that earthquake damage is preventable.

    The results show that damage preventability scores increased significantly after completing the questionnaire. The present study adopted a procedure of identifying and using the gaps and misunderstandings in knowledge as a basis for information aimed at increasing earthquake knowledge (cf. Bostrom et al., 1992). This procedure increased judgments that earthquake damage was preventable, suggesting that there is value in using a questionnaire based on expert knowledge to assess and correct gaps and misinformation in lay knowledge. The results suggest the value of increasing knowledge about the specific causes of damage and the ways that damage can be reduced (McClure & Williams, 1996).

    This increase in judgments that the damage was preventable may have been enhanced by the personal relevance of the material read by the subjects. Slovic et al. (1982) suggested that one determinant of the success of a program is the level of interest people have in the information. The educative phase of this study was tailored to specific gaps and misconceptions in participants' knowledge, and emphasized prevention activities specific to the subjects' present living situation. Participants' knowledge that the questionnaire would be marked in their presence may have enhanced their desire to know the answers.

    These findings support the idea that educational programs can counter inadequate knowledge and help people realise that earthquake damage can be prevented (Slovic et al., 1982). Examining why specific instances of damage occurred, and pointing out how this damage could be prevented, may reduce fatalistic attitudes and the negative aspects of past experience (Turner et al., 1986). The increase in perceived preventability produced here suggests that a knowledge-based educative strategy is likely to reduce fatalism about earthquakes. Spelling out the effects of preparation may encourage people with an external locus of control to realise that some damage is within their power to limit (McClure & Walkey, 1995). Given that maladaptive coping strategies such as denial are greatest where people perceive no control over the relevant events, increasing perceived preventability may reduce denial (Lehman & Taylor, 1987). Perceptions of preventability alone may be insufficient to get people to prepare more for earthquakes, but they may be a prerequisite to such action taking place voluntarily (McClure & Walkey, 1995).

    The present study used one method of presenting information. There is a need to assess not only what information is more effective in enhancing knowledge, but also which educative contexts have more effect on preparation for hazards. The feedback procedure used in this study could be adapted to other formats. If a "face-to-face" method is too costly, one lower-cost option is a self-contained questionnaire and information kit where the information (both written and visual) would directly relate to the questions asked. The questions could target key issues such as what can be done to prevent damage. This package could be given to citizens immediately after a major earthquake in another region when interest is likely to be greatest. The information could also be presented on a videotape and held in public libraries (Rattien, 1990). Another method is to target community groups. With the help of these groups, an exercise similar to the present study could be conducted on a larger basis. The reinforcement and encouragement of the group might encourage preventative action. This could include a resource person from an appropriate organisation, or if such a resource person is not available, a videotape.

     The second main goal of the study was to establish whether there was a relationship between earthquake knowledge, earthquake preparation, and judgments that earthquake damage was preventable. The correlation between earthquake knowledge scores and preparation scores showed that those with more earthquake knowledge were more likely to have prepared for earthquakes. A causal relation cannot be imputed from this relation, but this finding lends encouragement to programs designed to increase knowledge about hazards through well designed information programs (Slovic et. al., 1982).

    No relationship was found between preparation scores and judgments that earthquake damage is preventable. Some participants may lack the resources to undertake prevention, but the low cost of some items on the preparation checklist combined with the relative wealth of the geographical area surveyed challenge this explanation. A more likely explanation is that participants may see preparedness as the responsibility of the government (Jackson, 1977; Jackson, 1981; Kunreuther et. al., 1978). This finding may also reflect a preference for a crisis response (Jackson, 1988). Valery (1995) claimed that in Kobe, many citizens knew about the risks of earthquakes and how to prepare, but they thought that the science of predicting earthquakes was so advanced that they would receive a warning of an earthquake. As a consequence, they failed to prepare. Even when at-risk people know that damage is preventable, they may not prepare because they deny the seriousness of risk (Jackson, 1981; Lehman & Taylor, 1987).

    The results also showed no correlation between earthquake knowledge and the perceived preventability of earthquake damage. Citizens may have knowledge about what people can do, but perceive their situation as different (Turner et al., 1986). Hence their knowledge may be overruled by a fatalistic attitude. In addition, reliance on previous experience can limit people's use of hazard information (Sorenson, 1983). Although experience of a hazard can motivate people to prepare, others can be misled if the event caused little damage. Others judge that having sustained damages in the past, they are unlikely to do so again in the future (Burger & Palmer, 1992). Media images of mass destruction from large earthquakes may influence people's judgments that earthquake damage is preventable. People may think that preparation may prevent damage in some situations, but not in a major earthquake.

    In the present study, general damage was judged more preventable than building damage. The more inclusive nature of the damage in the general question may have led participants to judge that more could be done. In contrast, the more specific nature of the Building damage question ("How difficult is it to prevent damage to buildings in a major earthquake?") may have led subjects to think that the damage was severe and less preventable. The participants also may have less knowledge about preventing damage to buildings, and the judgments may reflect media images of mass destruction which focus on buildings (Williams & McClure, 1995). Educative programs need to be clear that much earthquake damage to buildings is preventable.

    In conclusion, the findings here suggest that the perceived preventability of earthquake damage can be increased by completing a brief earthquake knowledge questionnaire with a follow-up session that addresses gaps or misconceptions in earthquake knowledge. Secondly, participants' prior knowledge about earthquakes is related to their level of preparation for earthquakes, whereas judgments of the preventability of damage were unrelated to either prior earthquake knowledge or preparation. These findings have implications for the design of future hazard information programs. If programs take into account citizens' current knowledge and address gaps or misconceptions in that knowledge, then citizens may prepare more for earthquakes and other disasters.


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         Appendix A: Earthquake Damage prevention Questionnaire
Please tick the items below that you think would be a good step to take in significantly reducing the damage to a house (building) or its contents, in the event of a major earthquake.

yes      no     unsure

1) Replace your concrete chimney with a metal pipe type chimney
2) Choosing to build with a modern concrete tile roof.
3) Make sure the chimney is firmly attached to the house.
4) Add plywood to reinforce any uncovered internal walls.
5) Increase the weight bearing capacity of the walls and piles.
6) Fasten walls to foundations with anchoring bolts.
7) Reinforce the foundation piles under the house
8) It is better to have a house that has all the foundation on soil, than a house in which part of the foundation is on bedrock and part is on soil.
9) Knowing the location of the fault lines in the area is more important than knowing the location of the last earthquake, when deciding where to build.
10) A good way to prevent damage to hot water cylinders is to leave sufficiently large gaps between the cylinder and the wall to prevent the cylinder from hitting the wall and bursting
11) Make the base pad for a free standing heater or pot belly stove large enough so the stove won't fall over should it move.
12) Build an additional brick wall along side another brick wall for added strength
13) Square and rectangular shape buildings are generally considered
    more earthquake resistant than other building shapes like '»', when the same construction techniques are used.
14) Generally speaking single level houses are better at withstanding the shaking of earthquakes, than split or multilevel houses.
15) Most damage that occurs to a house or building is caused by the up and down motion of an earthquake, rather than the side to side motion.

Appendix B: Earthquake preparedness measure
The following is a list of earthquake preparedness items. Please indicate your response by ticking Yes or No in the appropriate place following each item. Your responses should be made with respect to your present residence.

yes      no    

Do you have any of the following items handy at your residence for use immediately after an earthquake:
-    First Aid Kit?......................................................
-    An operating Torch?..............................................
-    Supply of bottled water?.........................................
-    Supply of canned or dehydrated food?.........................
-    Radio (battery powered) with spare batteries?.................
-    Alternative cooking source?......................................

Are the following items in your home securely fastened:
-    Hot water cylinder?...............................................
-    Tall furniture? (e.g. tall bookcases).............................

Have you:
-     rearranged cupboard contents, so that items in the cupboard won't break or spill?
    (e.g. placed heavy objects at ground level) .............
-    securely fastened cupboards with latches?.....................

Does your household have an earthquake plan?..................
(i.e., what to do during and after an earthquake)

Do you know the location of:
-    The nearest civil defence meeting place to your home?.....


Francisco Hurnen, John McClure © 1997. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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