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

October 30, 2012
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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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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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