Hurricane Katrina: Why Did Some Stay Behind?

by Lee Sigelman on July 26, 2009 · 4 comments

in Other social science


A hurricane of epic proportions is barreling down on you, and everyone in positions of authority is urging you to get out of Dodge – er, New Orleans. What do you do? Well, if you’re the average person, you do what they’re telling you to do and get out of New Orleans as fast as your can (which, given that almost everybody else is trying to do the same thing at the same time, isn’t so very fast).

Except that maybe you didn’t try to get out at all. Maybe you’re one of those odd ones stayed behind. Whatever could have possessed you to do that? How could you possibly be so stupid?

In the current issue of Psychological Science, Nicole Stephens, MarYam Hamedani, Hazel Markus, Hilary Bergsieker, and Liyam Eloul take a step toward clarifying why some people stayed behind. Those who left and those who stayed behind, it turns out, had different notions of “agency” that shaped what they “perceive[d] as sensible, culturally appropriate action”—notions that in turn were associated with the broader circumstances in which they lived.

The model of agency that prevails in white middle-class settings places a premium on trying to shape and control the conditions in which one operates, overcoming situational constraints. Relief workers and lay observers, Stephens and her colleagues report, tended to ascribe very positive attributes (responsibility, intelligence, preparedness, resourcefulness, etc.) to those who evacuated, and decidedly negative ones (unpreparedness, lack of resourcefulness, despair, stubbornness) to those who stayed behind.

We suggest that these perceptions arose because observers assumed that influencing the environment through independence and control was the only way to be agentic. Thus, stayers’ actions, which deviated from [this] model, were viewed as not making sense and as lacking agency.

When Stephens et al. interviewed a mix of those who had evacuated and those who had stayed behind and survived, though, they got what they think is a clearer picture of the difference.

Most stayers were lacking in resources, not resourcefulness. Thus, “they needed to adjust to the constraints of their contexts by enacting a different model of agency – one that involved connecting to others, being strong, and maintaining faith in God. …What is clear is that stayers’ agency diverged markedly from the … model of agency that is pervasive in middle-class white contexts.”

Rather than ask why stayers made bad ‘choices’ or inquire what was wrong with stayers, relief workers should perhaps have asked, ‘What actions were possible in the resource-limited contexts of stayers?’ …Understanding that many people who stayed in the hurricane-affected area could not simply choose to evacuate could have promoted a more timely and effective disaster-prevention and relief effort.


Paul Gowder July 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

Please tell me that isn’t just the sociology-jargon (“agentic”) way of saying what we all already know, viz., a lot of people were too poor, elderly, disabled, etc. to get out.

Lee Sigelman July 26, 2009 at 11:41 am


You don’t need me to tell you – follow the link and see for yourself.

But to respond more directly: (1) The authors are psychologists, so they’re not just pointing toward SES, etc., differences. To be sure, the different notions of “agency” they identify are related to such differences, but it’s the psychology of the choice situation, not just the circumstances, that are of interest.

Paul Gowder July 26, 2009 at 11:50 am

Thanks. (Missed the link, and I fear that I have a really strong aversive reaction to things like “agentic” thanks to painful experience reading a lot of bad papers where this kind of jargon substitutes for actual analysis.)

mike3550 July 26, 2009 at 11:12 pm

For those who are interested in a really powerful first-hand account of this kind of action, you should definitely see the incredible documentary Trouble the Water. It is a first-hand account of a woman who tape-records the ordeal and then goes back with a documentary crew to re-trace the steps that they took to survive and get out. I’ve written more about it here for those who might be interested.

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