The New York Times has an interesting article today on how to get people to evacuate when big storms are coming. For those of us who study negotiation and persuasion, it’s instructive to see how disaster professionals conduct these kinds of short-term negotiations with huge groups of people. Here are the first three pieces of advice from the article:

  1. Fear is good. Many people evacuate when instructed, but a sizable number choose to stay behind, either because they disbelieve the authorities or because they discount the danger to themselves. Begging them to evacuate for their own good does not work. According to the article, one possibility for dealing with these people is to tell them that if they are staying behind, they should write their SSNs in sharpie on one of their arms, so that it is easier for rescue workers to identify their bodies later. This was my favorite piece of advice, because it so clearly demonstrates the strategic choice between positive and negative framing.
  2. Choose your words carefully. Don’t say “voluntary evacuation” even if there’s no actual mechanism for enforcement. Say “evacuation.” This piece of advice reminded me of how my students sometimes share a range instead of setting a particular price (like, “I will sell it for 15-20K”). Better to state your preferred position more forcefully at the outset.
  3. Make it geographically personal. Explain why the evacuation is happening and then tie evacuation recommendations to specific times and locations (e.g., “By 5:00, you should be in such-and-so city”). This level of specificity can convince the doubtful and also breaks down the evacuation into more feasible-sounding stages.

The other advice includes using apps; continuing to offer timely and factual advice/updates; and accepting that not everyone will leave, despite best efforts.

Jennifer Reynolds is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon Law and the Faculty Director of the ADR Center. Teaching civil procedure, conflicts of law, negotiation, and mediation, her research interests include dispute systems design, problem-solving in multiparty scenarios, judicial attitudes toward ADR, and cultural influences and implications of alternative processes. She is also a contributor to ADR Prof Blog.