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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
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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