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What Were They Thinking?: The Psychology of Riding Out the Storm

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Last night we put the call out for readers’ nagging hurricane questions. @BrothaDom and @michellesipics both asked for a peek into the minds of people who defy evacuation orders “in the face of everything that is sane.”

Just hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey last night, Governor Chris Christie chastised residents who stayed behind on the barrier islands running along the state’s shores—despite warnings from state officials and a mandatory evacuation order—and the local officials who encouraged them to do so. He then made it clear that he would not risk the lives of first responders in rescue attempts until conditions improved in the morning. “For those elected officials who decided to ignore my admonition,” he said, "this is now your responsibility.”

Why do some people insist on staying in the path of the storm long after others have been evacuated, the roads have closed or flooded and rescue is difficult or impossible? Why would they put their own lives and the lives of their rescuers at risk?

To answer that question, psychologists turned to the experts on the subject: the New Orleans residents who stayed behind and bore Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

Leavers vs. Stayers

The researchers, from Stanford University and Princeton University, interviewed people from four groups: New Orleans residents who rode the storm out; residents who left; rescue workers from outside the city who provided assistance during the storm; and people from elsewhere in the country who observed the situation through the media.

They found two important things. The first is that, among the survivors they spoke to, there were a variety of factors that played into the decision to leave or not. One major factor was finances and resources. “Leavers” usually had the money and transportation options to leave the city, and friends or relatives outside the storm’s path that they could stay with. “Stayers” usually had less income, fewer or no transportation options to get out of the city, and little to no social network outside of it. Many of those who stayed simply didn’t have the resources to do otherwise and had no choice but to ride things out.

But money and places to stay weren’t the only things decisions were based on. The researchers also found that there were psychological and psycho-social factors—like a mistrust of outsiders (in the form of people from outside the city making the decision that residents shouldn’t stay); a desire to stay close to neighbors, friends and others from one’s community for support; and a perceived obligation to, in turn, support and assist others from the community—that influenced the decision to not leave.

The other important finding was the way the groups in the study viewed those who evacuated and those who didn’t, and how they viewed themselves. Like Christie last night, federal and state officials and pundits criticized Katrina survivors for their choice to stay behind at the time. Likewise, when asked to describe the survivors who stayed, the other three groups used words like “lazy,” “stubborn,” and “negligent.” To describe the leavers, they used “hardworking,” “self-reliant,” and “responsible.”

Conjoint vs. Disjoint Model Citizens

These groups, the researchers say, viewed the stayers with certain assumptions about the way people act and make choices: that people are independent, that they make choices to influence their environment, and that those choices reflect their goals. This is called the disjoint model of human agency, a framework of action that dominates mainstream American culture and discourse among the middle-class.

The interviews with the people that stayed, though, revealed that they were playing by a different set of rules. The researchers found that their motivations and actions were more in line with the conjoint model of human agency, built around interdependence between individuals and the idea that people make choices to adapt themselves to their environment. It’s a model that psychologists have found at play often among working-class Americans.

Despite what outsiders and talking heads have had to say about those who choose to stay behind in a disaster, this research suggests that they often don’t have much choice in the matter. When they do, they aren’t choosing not to act, but are acting—despite constraints—in a way that fits their environment and worldview, and is sometimes just hard for others to recognize.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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