Home Hardening is a Great Idea, But People are Fickle

The idea that adversity will cause people to act rationally to make their homes more resilient underestimates our stubborn biases.

A new term is being thrown around by journalists: home hardening.

This militaristic sounding phrase refers to the idea of making your old home tougher—better able to handle flood and fire, less likely to require costly repairs and upgrades.

The premise seems logical: Since you can’t afford insurance (astronomical increases), you can’t afford a new home (too-high interest rates), you can’t afford a trade contractor (lack of availability and high-end client preference) you will naturally decide to turn your house into a fortress.

This sounds highly reasonable. It presumes people will act in their own self interest and upgrade their homes, taking the straightest path to the highest resilience for themselves and their families.

But human behavior is frustratingly complex. As those of us in the green advocacy niche have learned repeatedly, people don’t always act in logical, predictable ways. To illustrate, maybe some of what’s known from research on “heuristics,” can help. This refers to the mental shortcuts people take, as they assess a quantitative risk. I’ll apply them to some housing related scenarios, real and imagined.

subject to flooding

Anchoring Effect

People “anchor” their risk assessment on an initial statistic, and this impacts other perceived risks. For example, if they’re told that only 1 in 1000 homes in Fort Myers, Fla., was destroyed by a hurricane, they may falsely assume that if they live in another coastal town, they have a similar risk from hurricanes. They may also be ignoring the important details of their home’s elevation, structure type, and so on.

Compression Bias

Compression leads to overestimation of small risks and underestimation of large ones. For example, a person might be more worried about house fires than burglaries, based on news reports. In 2019, there were an estimated 354,400 home structure fires in the U.S. (National Fire Protection Association), or an annual likelihood of about 0.11%. By comparison, the FBI reports that there were approximately 1,117,696 reported burglaries in the U.S. in 2019, with an annual likelihood of about 0.34%.

Availability Heuristic

Easily remembered events are perceived as more frequent. This applies also to things they see in the media on a regular basis. If they watch the news, for instance, and see a regular cadence of flooded homes, they think their home could flood. If they only watch Housewives of Beverly Hills, they may never give a second thought to floods or other risks. La la la. Where’s this water coming from? 

Interpretation of Verbal Probabilities

Interpretation depends on context. In other words, if you say wildfires in an area are “rare,” or “likely,” different people will interpret the risk on completely different scales. For one, likely might mean once every 10 years. For another, likely might suggest that immediate fireproofing is called for.

Exposure and Cumulative Risk

People underestimate cumulative risk from multiple exposures. The perfect example of this is the use of range hoods and ventilation in homes. Even though the health risks from cooking without ventilation is well documented, and arguably one of the worst kinds of long-term asthma triggers for children, few people use their range hoods , even if they have them.

Multi-Dimensional Risk Comparisons

Comparing risks on too few dimensions affects perceptions. Often, only two variables are considered. For example, you may have heard that fires caused by lithium-ion battery explosions are rampant. But compared to what? If you look at the reasons for house fires in the U.S., you see that they still account for only about 1 percent of house fires. Here’s a rough estimate from the NFPA and other official sources:

  • Cooking-related incidents 40-50%
  • Electrical malfunctions 10-15%
  • Heating equipment issues 15-20%
  • Smoking materials 5-10%
  • Candles and open flames 5-10%
  • Arson and intentional fires 5-15%
  • Appliance malfunctions 5-10%
  • Gas leaks and explosions 5-10%
  • Lightning strikes 1%
  • EV battery-related incidents 1%

Omission Bias

People view the risk from errors of omission as less serious than commission. For example, even if they live in a home with 100-year-old plumbing, they may not be especially concerned about the risk of a plumbing leak. They may perceive the idea of taking action and upgrading the plumbing as more risky.

Framing Effect

Information framing influences risk communication. This, at least, is good news for journalists. How a risk is framed impacts how seriously the observer takes the risk. Context is everything. For example, convincing homeowners that impact glass reduces risk to property in a hurricane may be less effective than talking about how it provides defense against home break-ins.

The Barrier of the Status Quo

People don’t like change. Given the choice, they will attempt to eliminate risk and maintain the status quo. The balance between those two desires often tips toward maintenance, however. This may explain why people who live in homes hit by multiple flood events keep rebuilding instead of moving or drastically upgrading their properties. Some can’t afford to move, but others simply prefer the cost and suffering to the uncertainty of change.

The concept of home hardening is a good one. Given the economic struggles of many families, it’s the best way to reduce their risk of loss from flooding, or even to reduce their energy cost vulnerability. The tools, building materials, and products exist (if not the skilled contractors) to make this happen. But the biggest hurdles of all may be our human biases.

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