Panel Paper: Changing Decisions by Reframing Risk: How a Local Earthquake Safety Ordinance Motivated Voluntarily Retrofits

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 3:50 PM
Hopkins (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sharyl Rabinovici, Mills College

Emphasizing the benefits of taking a recommended action is sometimes more effective than emphasizing  the downsides of failing to act or vice versa, depending on the decision context (Rothman and Salovey 1997; Salovey and Williams-Piehota 2004). Furthermore, more people seem to respond when the message frame is congruent with their natural self-regulatory goal-orientation, which tends to be dominated by either promotion of desirable outcomes by doing what they could ideally do (achievement/attainment) or preventing bad outcomes by doing what they ought to do (security/avoidance) (Higgins 1997).

This research investigates how people responded to a local housing safety ordinance in Berkeley, California that targeted 320 owners of a high hazard and socially important building type. The law placed notice on the property title and required owners to inform tenants, post warning signs on site, and have a structural engineer evaluate the property. Even though owners were not required to do a seismic upgrade, over 20 percent voluntarily took that costly extra step. 

I conducted in-depth interviews and used a survey on a stratified sample of affected property owners (N=33) and a small group of similar owners who retrofitted prior to the law (N=5).  I find that the law apparently reversed some owners’ earthquake mitigation decision frame from promotion to prevention. Qualitatively, pre-law retrofitters wanted to “make the building better” while post-law retrofitters wanted to “remedy a defect” and “get off the list.” Not only did the law inform owners about the hazard and make the costs of failing to retrofit more salient, but it increased the costs of inaction by informing a large group of owners and potential buyers at around the same time. Underscoring these points, the law appeared to motivate retrofits among persons with a different personality profile: post-law retrofitters on average had a more “problem-avoidant” as opposed to “goal-attainment” regulatory orientation than people who retrofit prior to the ordinance.

Overall, the law created near-term negative consequences that strongly motivated the people who voluntarily retrofit their properties. Removing stigma (and its perceived economic implications), gaining freedom from added administrative hassles, and eliminating fear of further regulatory impositions or problems recruiting tenants were all powerful motivators.  In some cases, they motivated people more than concern about the actual hazard. Even non-retrofitters (N=11) agree that their property is worth less now unless they upgrade their property; qualitative evidence suggests that the effect is causal. Although the number of study participants does not permit statistical inference, retrofitters and non-retrofitters appear to own similar buildings and otherwise have similar demographic traits and earthquake risk perceptions.

Full Paper: