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UM School of Business Study Finds Men Turn to Web More Often Than Women When Hurricanes Threaten

October 09, 2008
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HurricaneNew research out of the University of Miami School of Business Administration and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School finds that, contrary to the popular wisdom that people in Florida and the Gulf are ‘hurricane mavens,’ residents in those areas often make limited use of the massive amount of information about approaching storms carried by the World Wide Web in the days prior to the issuance of overt warnings. The finding is one of several unexpected insights revealed in a recent study conducted by Robert Meyer, Warren Johnson Chair, professor of marketing, at the UM School of Business, along with Eric Bradlow and Ka Lok Le of the Wharton School. The research also found that men turn to the Web disproportionately more than women when a storm is approaching and that the vigilance of people living in areas hit by hurricanes in the past is short-lived.

“What we discovered is that there is great inequality across residents in terms of who actively gathers information about storms, how much is gathered, and when,” says Meyer. “We saw the problems this can cause play out in Galveston during Ike; while the hurricane center was repeatedly issuing dire warnings about the need to evacuate, not all residents were choosing to listen, or perhaps listening only to what they wanted to hear.”

Meyer and his colleagues studied how 141,000 residents in five southeastern cities changed their Web-surfing habits, hour-by-hour, as they lived through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The study was supported by the online database firm Compete, Inc., and was conducted in the same way online retailers use Web visitation patterns to measure consumer preferences.

“While we know quite a bit about how individuals form perceptions of risk in other contexts, we know much less than we should about hurricane response because of their rarity,” says Meyer. “Katrina was a perfect testing ground for the collection of such data because it was one of the few storms in history to make landfall near two major metropolitan areas (Miami and New Orleans) where the Internet use is higher than in more rural locations.”
 
The analysis yielded a number of unexpected insights about when and who sought Katrina information on the Web as the storm progressed:

  • When the going gets tough, men go Web-surfing. Although men and women were found to visit weather sites (such as weather.com) in nearly equal proportions in the calm days prior to Katrina, when the storm formed and began the threaten lands areas, men began to visit weather Web sites in disproportionately large numbers.  While the reason for this was unclear, the authors suggested that it may be reflective of a fundamental difference in how men and women respond to threats; whereas a woman’s first reaction may be to take active preparedness measures, a man’s may be to wait and gather information about the seriousness of the threat.  “Men could also just have a great latent interest in reading about impending natural disasters,” says Meyer.
              
  • “Next Storm Worry” passes quickly.  After Katrina passed, given location rates of visitation to weather sites stayed at elevated levels, suggestive of heightened lingering concerns about the possibility of follow-up storms.  But, this tendency seemed to have a short life span; while residents of the Florida Panhandle who had been hit hard by Hurricane Dennis a month before Katrina were quick to go to the Web to learn about the new storm the moment it formed, this was not the case among other residents a few miles to the west who had been less affected by the storm, even though they had been hit hard by Ivan in 2004.
                  
  • There is a lack of intensive visitation to weather Web sites prior to the issuance of overt warnings.  Although news about the threat that Katrina posed to the Gulf coast was extensively carried by all news media from the day the storm formed off Florida onward, residents along most of the Gulf began intensively turning to the Web as a source of information only when the threat became imminent.

“While over the years there has been enormous growth in the scientific knowledge of hurricanes that has allowed us to make better forecasts, we’ve known surprisingly little about how people respond to these forecasts, and the psychology of preparedness,” says Meyer.  “Hopefully ongoing work in this direction will continue to provide some answers.”
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