How people behave after a crisis like Hurricane Sandy


  • Photo 1 of 18

    People walk through the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood in Queens where a large section of the iconic boardwalk was washed away on November 2, 2012 in New York.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

  • Photo 2 of 18

    National Guard soldiers walk past ambulances at Bellevue Hospital during a planned evacuation October 31, 2012 in New York. Bellevue Hospital, the oldest in the country, decided to evacuate its remaining 500 patients on Wednesday after flooding inundated the basement and knocked out electricity.

    - Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 3 of 18

    Ambulances line up outside Bellevue Hospital during a planned evacuation October 31, 2012 in New York.

    - Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 4 of 18

    Mounds of debris pile up in the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood in Queens where a large section of the iconic boardwalk was washed away on November 2, 2012 in New York. Limited public transit has returned to New York and most major bridges have reopened, but will require three occupants in the vehicle to pass.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

  • Photo 5 of 18

    Residents wait for information from FEMA in Queens. With the death toll currently over 70 and millions of homes and businesses without power, the U.S. East Coast is attempting to recover from the effects of floods, fires and power outages brought on by superstorm Sandy.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

  • Photo 6 of 18

    A police officer speaks with a woman attempting to drive onto the Brooklyn Bridge on November 2, 2012 in New York City.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

  • Photo 7 of 18

    In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, patrons wait in line to get their gas containers filled on November 2, 2012 in Seaford, N.Y.

    - Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

  • Photo 8 of 18

    Messages about Hurricane Sandy are posted in the window of a Fishs Eddy housewares store in New York as the city recovers from the effects of the storm.

    - Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 9 of 18

    The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is flooded after a tidal surge caused by Hurricane Sandy, on October 30, 2012 in Manhattan, New York.

    - Allison Joyce/Getty Images

  • Photo 10 of 18

    The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is flooded after a tidal surge caused by Hurricane Sandy, on October 30, 2012 in Manhattan, New York.

    - Allison Joyce/Getty Images

  • Photo 11 of 18

    Workers clean up a fallen tree October 30, 2012 in New York City.

    - Allison Joyce/Getty Images

  • Photo 12 of 18

    Ground Zero is seen on October 30, 2012 in the Financial District of New York.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

  • Photo 13 of 18

    Residents look at damage left by Hurricane Sandy on City Island, N.Y.

    - Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 14 of 18

    A family poses for photos in front of the rising tides on City Island, New York, October 30, 2012.

    - Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 15 of 18

    Jolito Ortiz helps sweep water out of his friend's apartment while cleaning up after flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012, in the Lower East Side of New York City.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

  • Photo 16 of 18

    A truck drives through a flooded street, caused by Hurricane Sandy in the Lower East Side of New York City. The storm has claimed at least 16 lives in the United States and has caused massive flooding across much of the Atlantic seaboard.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

  • Photo 17 of 18

    Rising water, caused by Hurricane Sandy, rushes into a subterranian parking garage on October 29, 2012, in the Financial District of New York, United States.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

  • Photo 18 of 18

    The closed New York Stock Exchange is barricaded with sand bags during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City.

    - Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Northeast has taken a hammering this week. We've seen the pictures: water and sand in the streets, houses washed away, lights out in entire districts of cities.

It looks as though Hurricane Sandy has done a good job of destroying some communities -- and not just physically. The images have also shown people swarming grocery stories, snapping up emergency supplies, and fighting over electrical outlets and gasoline. These are clear signs of neighborhoods in crisis.

But while disaster can destroy ties, it can also bring communities closer together.

Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. He points out that that altruistic feeling people feel  immediately after crisis like Hurricane Sandy could actually last for quite a while. There are two reasons: First, people get to realize how much they depend on other people. Secondly, people look around at what others are doing in times of crisis, and once they see someone next to them helping their neighbor, they begin to see it at the social norm.

"How do you know what's the right behavior? We look around us and we see how other people are behaving and we take that as a singal for what appropriate behavior is," says Ariely. "I think given all the nice cases of how other people are treating each other nicely, there's a good chance other people would watch it, would look at this as the standard norm and would actually keep on behaving this way."

But what happens when people realize food and water are running low? Do they keep helping their fellow man?

Ariely uses an old experiment to illustrate his point. In the experiment, subjects were offered pieces of chocolate for free. As they were passed around the room, each person only took one or two -- presumably thinking of others. But once they put a price on that chocolate, everybody wanted to buy as many as they could, quickly draining the supply.

In theory, the same could apply in real life during or after a disaster. If a disaster relief crew at a community center is handing out water, everyone would only take what they need, knowing they are in the same boat as everyone else. But if it is offered for sale at a supermarket, the first people who show up might recognize that it's a commercial world and buy as much water and supplies as they can -- leaving shelves empty.

Thankfully, many storeowners haven't been jacking up their prices during this particular disaster as they do in some crisis situations.

"I think everybody feels like they're in the same boat," Ariely says. "In this particular case, the tragedy is so large, everybody feels connected to it. Everybody is suffering to some degree and taking advantage of your fellow men who are in the same boat probably feels much worse than taking advantage of other people who you don't feel as connected to."

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...