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date: 22 April 2019

Ontological Security and Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

People not only want to be safe from natural hazards; they also want to feel they are safe. Sometimes these two desires pull in different directions, and when they do, this slows the journey to greater physical adaptation and resilience.

All people want to feel safe—especially in their own homes. In fact, although not always a place of actual safety, in many cultures “home” is nonetheless idealized as a place of security and repose. The feeling of having a safe home is one part of what is termed ontological security: freedom from existential doubts and the ability to believe that life will continue in much the same way as it always has, without threat to familiar assumptions about time, space, identity, and well-being. By threatening our homes, floods, earthquakes, and similar events disrupt ontological security: they destroy the possessions that support our sense of who we are; they fracture the social structures that provide us with everyday needs such as friendship, play, and affection; they disrupt the routines that give our lives a sense of predictability; and they challenge the myth of our immortality. Such events, therefore, not only cause physical injury and loss; by damaging ontological security, they also cause emotional distress and jeopardize long-term mental health.

However, ontological security is undermined not only by the occurrence of hazard events but also by their anticipation. This affects people’s willingness to take steps that would reduce hazard vulnerability. Those who are confident that they can eliminate their exposure to a hazard will usually do so. More commonly, however, the available options come with uncertainty and social/psychological risks: often, the available options only reduce vulnerability, and sometimes people doubt the effectiveness of these options or their ability to choose and implement appropriate measures. In these circumstances, the risk to ontological security that is implied by action can have greater influence than the potential benefits. For example, although installing a floodgate might reduce a business’s flood vulnerability, the business owner might feel that its presence would act as an everyday reminder that the business, and the income derived from it, are not secure. Similarly, bolting furniture to the walls of a home might reduce injuries in the next earthquake, but householders might also anticipate that it would remind them that there is a continual threat to their home. Both of these circumstances describe situations in which the anticipation of future feelings can tap into less conscious anxieties about ontological security.

The manner in which people anticipate impacts on ontological security has several implications for preparedness. For example, it suggests that hazard warnings will be counterproductive if they are not accompanied by suggestions of easy, reliable ways of eliminating risk. It also suggests that adaptation measures should be designed not to enhance awareness of the hazard.

Keywords: emotions, home, ontological security, social representations, floods, anxiety, existential


Flood risk prompts a range of emotionally focused responses. Some of these center on the human desire for feelings of security. These responses have implications for whether people adopt practical, adaptive behaviors.

The term ontological security was first used by the Scottish psychiatrist, R. D. Laing (1965), as a way of contrasting the mental state of the “man in the street,” who wrestles with normal levels of existential doubt, with that of people with schizophrenia, who struggle to maintain a firm sense of identity (Laing, 1969). The word “ontological” denotes a belief about the essential nature of things, whereas the word “security” points to what is arguably a fundamental need for a certain degree of order, continuity, meaningfulness and absence of chaos and anxiety. This existential security is said to be threatened whenever the key supporting pillars of that security are lost or undermined. One example is when the death of a friend or family member prompts people to “question the meaningfulness and reality of the social frameworks in which they participate” (Mellor & Shilling, 1993, p. 13). A second example, more relevant to present purposes, is when there is a threat to the idealized notion of “home.” The role of “home” is widely discussed in housing studies (Dupuis, 2012), where control of the home environment is said to hold at bay the threat of a world viewed as menacing and uncontrollable (Saunders, 1984, 1986; Dupuis & Thorns, 1998). Natural hazards may have a disruptive impact on “home” and on other notions that are core to ontological security; the implications of ontological security for the management of natural hazards and for the design of policies and programs intended to enroll householders as active participants in that management are examined here.

The desire for ontological security mostly operates outside of consciousness (Giddens, 1990); thus, although its impact on risk management is significant, it is largely hidden. This impact is brought into the open here by revealing the rationality behind attitudes and behaviors that might otherwise appear irrational and by suggesting new considerations for the promotion of risk-reducing adaptations. Emotional factors associated with ontological security, it is argued, sometimes deter people from taking actions that have clear practical benefits. If these emotional considerations are taken into account when selecting, designing, and marketing resilience measures, then take-up and effectiveness are likely to increase.

A range of academic disciplines are drawn upon in making these assertions. Historically, it was argued that naturally occurring hazards should be dealt with separately from other types of risk (Brun, 1992; Johnson & Tversky, 1983), and the social science of natural hazards was largely the fiefdom of human and behavioral geography (Fordham, 1992). As a result, the study of natural hazards became somewhat disconnected from developments in disciplines such as social psychology and sociology. Reflected here is the gradual reintegration of these other disciplines, and included are theories and literature not only from human/behavioral geography but also from sociology and psychology.

The focus on ontological security illustrates this move toward a broader disciplinary perspective, for it distances the analyst from many of the more traditional ways of understanding responses to natural hazards. A focus on ontological security challenges the more traditional, materialist view that characterizes the response to natural hazards as decision making by individuals seeking to minimize their financial or material losses. A focus on ontological security also questions the usual emphasis on cognitive approaches to risk perception and on material considerations, an outline of which is provided here. Also provided here is a description of how researchers have more recently begun to acknowledge the importance of emotional responses to natural hazard events and hazard adaptation, and to take account of people’s need to feel secure as well as be secure.

The Cognitivist, Materialist View of Hazard Response

Historically, the main social science paradigm in the study of natural hazards has been cognitivism (Watts, 1983; Fordham, 1992; Lupton, 1999). Cognitivism, as the term suggests, focuses on the processes of mental cognition and strives to understand the how data about the world are assimilated and transformed by individuals. Its tacit underlying assumption is the validity of the stimulus–organism–response model. Within this model, the nature of a risk itself (the stimulus) is taken as given, and it is individuals’ cognitive and behavioral responses that are of interest; as Douglas (1985) puts it, “the hazard is taken as the independent variable and people’s response to it as dependent” (p. 25). Furthermore, cognitivism assumes that responses to risk are determined by rational calculations of material cost and benefit—that is, that people are utility maximizers (e.g., see Becker, 1974; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980).

The question of how people analyze risk information, what they analyze, and when they do so remains, therefore, a dominant issue in cognitive risk research. One example of such a research stream is the study of heuristics, which looks at the everyday mental shortcuts people employ when they are thinking about risk (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1972, 1973). Another example is the work of U.S. psychologists Paul Slovic and colleagues (see Slovic, 2000), which used the so-called psychometric approach (a combination of surveys and factor analysis) to reveal the dimensions that cause a risk to be seen as more or less serious. Findings from both of these schools can usefully be applied to natural hazards. The influence of flood experience on flood risk response (see Penning-Rowsell, 1976; Sattler, Kaiser, & Hittner, 2000; Lindell & Perry, 2000; Grothmann & Reusswig, 2006), for example, is sometimes explained by the heuristic known as vividness bias,1 and representativeness bias2 can be used to explain why (as Nisbett & Ross, 1980, demonstrate) people find it difficult to utilize knowledge about event frequencies that is framed in probabilistic terms. Similarly, Fischoff et al.’s (1978) findings on the voluntary–involuntary dimension of risk, and its importance for perceptions of seriousness, suggest that the level of a person’s awareness of a natural hazard when she moves into an area is an important predictor of her response to that hazard.

The cognitivist tendency to imagine people as deliberative, analytical processors of information about material risk was eroded by a growing acknowledgment of the importance of emotions. The role of emotions had long been underestimated within the cognitivist paradigm (Joffe, 1999; Zinn, 2006). Although in the 1950s the influential U.S. polymath Herbert Simon (1957) had concluded that “affected, non-rational factors” were important determinants of behavior (p. 200), this assertion was overshadowed by another of his findings that was more in tune with the zeitgeist: the principle of bounded rationality, which focused the attention of researchers on cognitive limitations and the constrained time available for most decision making. The reinvigoration of Simon’s point about emotions came, over 20 years later, from two directions: Slovic and colleagues’ identification of “dread” as one of the characteristics most highly correlated with perceived risk (Fischoff et al., 1978; Slovic, 1987) and Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) publication of their seminal paper on prospect theory. Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist and eventual 2002 Nobel Prize winner, was the key figure in a group of scientists that launched a fundamental challenge to prevailing assumptions about human rationality in economic theory. Though not overtly concerned with emotions, prospect theory claimed that people give greater weight to potential losses than they do to potential gains when making decisions about risk and that the anticipated emotions associated with loss and gain are of greater decision-making importance than material considerations. Such arguments have continued to receive support from the academic community, with, for example, the coining of the term affect heuristic in 2000 (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2007). These arguments illustrate the way in which emotions reflect people’s capacity to anticipate the impacts that events will have on them—or, as Archer (2000) puts it, how emotions “go out before us to meet the future.”

At first, the emotional components of decision making were considered undesirable bias or, at best, a means of achieving a heuristic shortcut that, though necessary for the efficient functioning of everyday life, caused misjudgments. However, this view was challenged by, among others, the Canadian philosopher and Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Charles Taylor. Rather than seeing emotions as distorting reality, Taylor (1985) described them as providing “an affective mode of awareness” that complemented the other senses. By highlighting what aspects of a situation are of concern to people and making them a matter of nonindifference, he argued, emotions enable people to make decisions, and this awareness is essential for aligning decisions to the needs of the individual (see Archer, 2000). This view was popularized by the influential Italian neuroscientist, António Damásio, who argued (1994/1996) that it was impossible for decisions to be based on material rationality alone and that the emotional marking of options was essential not only for greater decision speed, but also for the quality of the decisions made. Damásio famously cited the case of 19th-century railroad worker Phineas Gage, who was said to have been rendered incapable of decision making when an industrial brain injury deprived him of the ability to experience emotions. Although Damásio was later accused of fictionalizing large parts of Gage’s story (Macmillan, 2000), his book not only supported arguments for the influence of emotions on decision making but also promoted the idea that emotions might be essential to that process.

In the field of natural hazards, research into the impacts of anticipated emotions has relied, in large part, on the use of cross-sectional studies to search for associations between types of anticipated emotions and practical adaptation measures (e.g., Parker, 1976; Tunstall, Tapsell, & Fordham, 1994; Sattler et al., 2000; Siegel, Shoaf, Afifi, & Bourque, 2003; Grothmann & Reusswig, 2006). Furthermore, these studies have not revealed a consistent picture. For example, Parker (1976), Siegel et al. (2003), and Sattler et al. (2000) conclude that anticipation of the emotional effects of natural hazards is positively associated with preparedness, while Grothmann and Reusswig (2006) and Tunstall et al. (1994) reach the opposite conclusion.

The “Turn to Emotions” in Natural Hazards Research

Consideration of the import of ontological security is symptomatic of an increasing interest in the emotions across the social sciences, including a “turn to emotion” in human geography (Bondi, Davidson, & Smith, 2012) and within the study of risk in social psychology (Joffe, 1999). The ensuing research has opened the door to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how emotions surrounding ontological security affect the responses to natural hazards.

People’s Awareness of the Impact of Ontological Security on Their Hazard Response

One important contributor to this debate is the influential English sociologist and critical realist, Margaret Archer. Archer (2000) criticizes Damásio’s position on emotions as simplistic, claiming that it is overly associative and lacks recognition of the conscious elements of emotions. Her position on the consciousness of emotions rests on the argument that people adapt their emotional responses to events according to what they know about the generative mechanisms behind these events. For example, people cease to be frightened by the violent banging sometimes made by radiators when they understand that these noises are caused by air-locks. Archer asserts that this is not, as Damásio might have argued, because previous banging episodes have not led to any harm. She argues, rather, that this changed emotional response is a result of people’s ability to understand why radiators make this noise and why this does not represent a threat to their safety. The debate about associationism is key to understanding responses to natural hazards. If Damásio is right, changes in emotional responses to hazards depend entirely on the direct and indirect experience of those hazards and the unconscious association of certain circumstances with particular outcomes. If Archer is right, deliberate reflection and improved understanding (prompted by, for example, risk communication programs) can influence the emotive response to these hazards and, therefore, the behavioral response.

Another perspective on the consciousness of emotions is provided by Anthony Giddens. He (1991) argues that emotions related to ontological security often operate neither at the conscious, deliberative level nor within the unconscious but, rather, from within what he calls practical consciousness. Practical consciousness, he argues, guides behavior from an area of thought that is so integrated into everyday life as to be hardly noticed. Initially, inchoate emotions may previously have been processed, and the resulting cognitions may previously have had a conscious impact on behavior; but over time, and with repetition, these behaviors create habitual patterns that, though accessible to conscious awareness in principle, are rarely paid any attention in practice. For example, although the conscious processing of emotional responses to the risk of burglary might prompt the decision to fit an additional door lock, once the use of the new lock has become habitual, the emotions associated with being burgled drift into practical consciousness and outside of awareness.

Still others oppose cognitivist utility maximization theories by arguing that the logical analysis of likely material consequences is only one mode of decision making: that there is always an alternative mode available, and that this alternative is often prioritized. Such dual-processing theories (Mukherjee, 2010) contrast two modes of thinking: for example, implicit versus explicit thinking, associative versus rule-based thinking, parallel versus serial thinking, and, most relevant to this discussion, unconscious versus conscious, deliberative thinking. Recently, Kahneman has proposed a dual-processing model that can be seen as subsuming Damásio’s, Archer’s, and Giddens’s positions, as well as the notion of the affect heuristic. In his hugely popular book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman (2011) depicts two systems of thinking: System 1 and System 2. System 1 thinking, which he characterizes as fast and instinctive, can be seen as incorporating Damásio’s description of the marking of options by inchoate, unprocessed, unconscious emotions. It can also be argued, however, that it includes the habituated thinking that embodies emotional considerations within Giddens’s practical consciousness. Kahneman goes on to state that when people have access to processed emotions, they sometimes use System 2 thinking instead, by using logic to overcome System 1’s “intuitions and impulses.” System 2 thinking, therefore, more closely reflects Archer’s position. By encompassing the perspectives brought by Damásio, Giddens, and Archer, Kahneman’s model allows us to see how existential anxieties can influence behavior at these three levels of consciousness: the unconscious, the conscious, and the practical consciousness.

Unlike Kahneman’s thinking systems, a second influential dual-processing theory, that of Folkman and Lazarus (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), only looks at the distinctions between conscious responses to risk situations. These, they argue, can be either problem-focused or emotion-focused. Problem-focused responses occur when the material aspects of a situation are considered sufficiently amenable to change and focus on the management of these material aspects. Emotion-focused responses, however, occur if the material aspects are considered either unalterable or insufficiently alterable and focus on the management of the emotional aspects of a risk. So, for example, a householder might install a floodgate if he felt this would protect him adequately from the next flood or, if he had no confidence in the efficacy of any protective measure, might engage in psychological denial instead. According to Folkman and Lazarus, emotion- and problem-focused cognitions usually happen concurrently and are sometimes mutually obstructive. The following examples, adapted from Lazarus and Folkman (1984), illustrate what they mean. In the first, the employment of an emotion-focused strategy impedes the problem-focused response; in the latter, the reverse is the case:

A man agonizing over the issue of how to protect his home against flooding finds the emotional distress unbearable. In order to reduce this distress, he makes a premature decision. He might have tried to understand the kind of flood that can occur, found out how it might affect him and made a thorough search for an appropriate way of protecting his property. Instead, he minimizes his emotional distress by assuming that he can rely on the traditional form of flood-resilience: sandbags.

A man who has discovered that he lives in an area of radon risk perseveres in gathering and evaluating information, the acquisition of which contributes to uncertainty and increased anxiety. He gets trapped in a cycle of problem-focused coping (information gathering and evaluating) that exacerbates his emotional distress and interferes with mechanisms such as avoidance that might otherwise have reduced his anxiety.

As can be seen from these examples, Folkman and Lazarus do not consider emotion-focused coping to be inferior to problem-focused coping. In the right context, they argue, both forms of coping have their benefits; in the wrong context, either can be problematic. Indeed, just as R. D. Laing’s original arguments sought to distinguish the “normal” search for ontological security from the schizophrenic’s desperate struggle for coherent identity, Folkman and Lazarus contrast emotion-focused coping with defenses such as delusion, denial of external reality, and repression. Unlike delusion, denial, and repression, which are considered maladaptive because they reduce positive emotion, emotion-focused coping reduces negative emotions and so is considered a healthy reaction to stressful situations in which material circumstances cannot be set right (Gross, 1998).

How People Try to Regulate Their Emotions

Emotion-focused coping is just one example of how academics have begun to conceive of emotions as phenomena that can be regulated using cognitive strategies—and of the emerging understanding of how important this is for risk response. However, the idea that emotions can be regulated contradicts the academic and popular literature that portrays emotions as biologically determined and ineluctable responses to life events—for example, the popularization of “basic emotions” by Plutchnik’s wheel of emotion (2001) and psychologist Paul Ekman’s (1992) assertion that all humans have developed the same five emotions to deal with common fundamental life tasks. Contrary to those such as Plutchnik and Ekman, Archer (2000, p. 209), for example, argues that only “first-order” emotions are held in common across the human species; the all-important “second-order” emotional responses, she maintains, vary according to the range of cognitive influences that affect individuals; this, therefore, renders them vulnerable to manipulation by cognitive strategies.

The role played by these second-order emotions in decision making is determined by the negotiations people have with themselves about which emotions they should prioritize. Archer argues that emotions emerge from three distinct orders of life—the “natural order,” the “practical order,” and the “social order”—and that there is often conflict between the emotions that arise out of these different orders. In large part, life consists, she says, of finding a resolution to these conflicts and achieving a modus vivendi that balances the concerns that the different emotions embody. The working out of this modus vivendi is central to this discussion about the impact of ontological security concerns on natural hazard responses. In some circumstances, the needs of ontological security are set aside in favor of other demands. During an earthquake, for example, the natural order usually dominates the production of emotional responses: people prioritize the need for material safety over that for ontological security so that they can take practical steps to make themselves more materially safe. However, Archer’s framework suggests that at other times, interests from the social and practical orders are likely to dominate and that threats from nature will be moved to the background.

The question of how to achieve this modus vivendi is addressed by Stamford psychology professor, James J. Gross. Over recent years, Gross’s work has helped prompt and shape a dramatic increase in research into how people manage the conflicts between different emotions (Gross, 2013) and has led to the emergence of a subdiscipline of psychology: emotion regulation (Gross, 2015). Developed in 2007 and elaborated in several subsequent publications (see Gross, 2015), Gross’s process model (Gross & Thompson, 2007) makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of how ontological security is relevant to natural hazards responses. Figure 1 illustrates how his model might be applied to flood hazard. The model draws attention to the fact that even practical responses such as relocation and property-level resilience can be motivated by emotional considerations and indicates the role of ontological security as a motivator of practical adaptation (boxes 1 and 2), as well as of political action (box 2), denial (box 3), distortion of the scientific picture (box 4), and maladaptive reactions to being flooded (box 5).

Ontological Security and Natural HazardsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Process model of emotion regulation (adapted from Gross & Thompson, 2007).

Two of these strategies for the achievement of emotion regulation (attentional deployment and cognitive change) have been the focus of recent work by Harries, who investigated emotions and the response to flood risk in mixed-methods research conducted at Middlesex University’s Flood Hazard Research Centre (2005–2008) and, subsequently, at King’s College London and Kingston University London. He argues (2007, 2008, 2012, and 2013) that the emotion regulation strategies that Gross calls “attentional deployment” and “cognitive change” have a direct influence on the take-up of natural hazard mitigation. Unlike Gross, but along with a minority of those writing about emotion regulation (e.g., Mesquita & Albert, 2007; Watts, 2007; Thompson & Meyer, 2007), Harries also looks at the social influences on these responses.

Ontological Security and Changing Teleologies

Harries’s perspective on these emotion-regulation strategies and their relationship to ontological security is influenced, in part, by what is known as the risk society thesis (Giddens, 1990, 1991, 1994; Beck, 1986/1992, 1997, 2006). According to this thesis, responses to risk have been influenced by changes wrought on Western populations’ feelings of security by the loss of religious and magical certainty. Modern society, it is argued, is more reflexive than its predecessors. Its identities and beliefs, instead of being fixed in the aspic of custom and tradition, are ongoing self-reflexive creations, and the certainty once provided by tradition, religion, and magic has been replaced by a less secure faith in science. In the past, floods, earthquakes, and other natural calamities were seen as being controlled by God or by magic; now, they are increasingly represented as the results of human action. Giddens (1994) argues that, in contrast with the assertions of the key Enlightenment thinkers, the increased knowledge provided by science has meant more uncertainty rather than less. As long as people were able to put their faith in science, science acted as an effective substitute for belief in the supernatural; but science has proved less phenomenologically omnipotent or omniscient than the gods of past ages, and trust in science has been eroded by postmodern doubt. The result, the proponents of the risk society thesis argue, has been the loss of a teleological view of life and of the world: all certainty has gone and neither God, magic, nor science can any longer be represented as having control over the forces people encounter in their lives. Climate change is a prime modern-day example. Although blame for climate change is commonly attributed to human action, solutions are—more often than not—represented as out of reach, and discourses of the supernatural are, in the main, absent from the debate.

According to Giddens, this loss of a teleological world-view threatens people’s sense of ontological security (Giddens, 1990, 1991)—which he defines as the emotional stability they gain from avoiding doubts about the continuity of their own identity and existence. Freedom from such doubts, Giddens argues, is the state that all humans desire above all else and the state that they strive for from birth. To compensate for the loss of religion and magic, people fabricate for themselves a faith in a kind of providence that Giddens calls fortuna. Compared to teleological belief that is based on religion, fortuna is less codified and less explicit. Giddens argues that the enquiring scientific rationality of the modern age continually undermines fortuna, which only survives as a “half-hearted superstition rather than a truly effective psychological support” (1991, p. 30).

This weakening of the teleological perspective makes the anticipation of natural hazards more emotionally damaging now than it was in the past. People’s fates are increasingly represented as being in their own hands and this, Giddens argues, makes them feel less secure rather than more secure. Where destructive natural events could once be seen as part of God’s plan and evidence of His omnipotence, they now seem to happen in spite of science, to demonstrate the weakness of the scientific paradigm and to undermine ontological security. This loss of a teleological certainty prompts an increase in the anticipation of negative emotions. In response, according to Giddens, people create representations of the world that bracket out all existential threats to their sense of security. On the other side of this “protective cocoon” of representations, “chaos lurks” (Giddens, 1991, pp. 36–40). To protect themselves from the negative emotions associated with a life that has lost teleological certainty, the cocoon is guarded against encroachment by any representations and discourses that might endanger it (Giddens, 1991, pp. 39–40).

The Protective Cocoon: Representations of “Home,” “Nature,” and “Society”

Harries presents evidence that appears to confirm the relevance of Giddens’s arguments to natural hazard resilience. Harries’s analysis of interviews with flooded U.K. householders (Harries, 2007, 2008) leads him to suggest that people living in flood-risk areas are apt to protect themselves from the existential danger posed by flood risk with representations of the world that they believe will make them feel ontologically secure. Furthermore, he asserts that the discursive defense of these representations can sometimes delegitimize preemptive material action. For example, a householder might feel that the implementation of her own hazard resilience measures would undermine her representation of the state as the ultimate protector of its citizens. Were this to happen, it might oblige her to accept an image of the world as a place in which society cannot be relied upon to neutralize the hazards posed by the natural environment. In other words, although such an action might increase her material security, it might also undermine her feeling of ontological security.

Harries asserts that these representations, and the associated discourses, are social in nature rather than the result of individual personality types or individual choices. In doing so, his work draws on theories from sociology and what is variously termed critical social psychology (Stainton, 2003) or sociological social psychology (Greenwood, 2004). Harries taps into Emile Durkheim’s notion of collective representations and a more recent development of his theory, Serge Moscovici’s social representations. Durkheim (1912) and Moscovici (1984) both argue that human behavior is influenced by ideas, beliefs, and values that are collectively elaborated and that cannot be reduced to the level of individual cognition. Harries contends that ontological security rests on the survival of a number of such socially generated representations that are key to people’s concepts of themselves and their place in the world. Such social representations, he argues, provide a version of Giddens’s “cocoon” that allows people to feel ontologically secure despite the existential threats posed by potential floods, earthquakes, and the like.

Another important aspect of Harries’s discussion regards the structure of social representations. Harries follows those proponents of Moscovici’s theory who depict people’s representations of the world as consisting of networks of representational elements that cluster around a central, protected core (Abric, 1984; see also Tafani & Souchet, 2002; Meier & Kirchler, 1998; Bangerter, 2000). They argue that any unfamiliar concept or theory that impacts on an individual or group only normally penetrates to the outer layers of the representation: the “shock absorbers” (Flament, 1987) that assimilate alien conceptions without allowing the core part of the representation to be challenged. According to social representations theory, core representational elements are protected in this way because of their pivotal role in giving meaning to the more peripheral elements and determining the links that hold them together (Abric, 2001). In this way, they give coherence and strength to individual and group identity (Joffe, 2003; Philogène, 2001), saving them from being overwhelmed by new ideas and protecting self-esteem (see Jahoda, 1999) and, it could be argued, ontological security. The core of a representation is decontextualized (Philogène, 2001), whereas elements of the periphery exist in the context of the external environment, acting within, and reacting to, information and feedback from the outside world; and the core is ideological in its origins (Abric, 2001), whereas the periphery converts that ideology into attitudes to concrete situations (Moliner & Tafani, 1997). It is for these reasons that the core is most resistant to change (Abric, 2001). Core elements, it can be argued, are equivalent to Giddens’s “assumptions,” which protect people from the “chaos” of existential uncertainty and protect their sense of ontological security (1991, p. 36).

Drawing on a discourse analysis of in-depth interviews with U.K. residents of flood-risk areas, Harries (2008) identifies the social representation of “home” as the element of ontological security that is potentially most threatened by flooding and the anticipation of flooding. This representation, he suggests, is protected by two “shock absorbers”: ideas of “society” and of “nature.” In the contemporary West, the pervasive social representation of “home” comprises the positively connoted notions of continuity, safety, relaxation, privacy and familial affection (Saunders, 1989; Smith, 1994). Originally a bourgeois view of the 17th century (Hareven, 1991) but now shared by other social groups in the United Kingdom (Mallett, 2004), this idealized representation of home remains important even where, as is often the case (Douglas, 1991), it does not reflect lived experience. Invasion of the home, or the threat of invasion, by foreign substances such as floodwater therefore threatens a person’s idea of his or her identity and undermines ontological security (Dupuis & Thorns, 1998)—as do threats to the physical integrity of home by hazards such as earthquakes. This helps explain the deterioration in mental health experienced by some of those who are forced to evacuate and relocate after natural disasters (e.g., Ohl & Tapsell, 2000; Bourque, Siegel, Kano, & Wood, 2006; Bonanno, Brewin, Kaniasty, & La Greca, 2010). As argued in the literature on mortgage indebtedness and home ownership, the perceived dependability of one’s home is a contributor to overall health (Nettleton & Burrows, 1998; Hiscock, Macintyre, Kearns, & Ellaway, 2003). Indeed, three of the four main correlates of high posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) scores among flooded householders identified by Tunstall, Tapsell, Green, Floyd, and George (2006) are associated with factors that impinge directly on the perception of “home”: the experience of evacuation, the time it takes to get “back to normal,” and the perceived contamination of the floodwaters. The importance of “home” for ontological security also, Harries argues, helps explain the antipathy toward the notion of property-level protection that is sometimes encountered among U.K. householders. For example, in his analysis of focus group data from at-risk tenants of social housing (2007, 2008), Harries describes how participants justified their antipathy to the idea of floodgates by arguing that such gates would restrict their sense of freedom in their homes (“prisoner in your own home”) and suggest the possibility of invasion (“you might get squatters moving in”) and danger (“then a fire starts and you’ve had it!”).

A second shock absorber in the representation of life as ontologically secure is the social representation of nature. Among those with little or no direct experience of flooding, Harries found, a representation of “nature” as essentially benign helps cocoon them from the shock of messages and results in these messages having little if any effect on representations of home or ontological security. This depiction of nature as benign is consistent with the dominant contemporary Western view. Within this view, nature’s destructive aspects exist outside of the normal spectrum of human–environment relations (see Hewitt, 1995), nature is a realm of essentially positive moral power, and the historical equation of nature with sin is rejected (Macnaghten & Urry, 1995; Soper, 1995).

Harries argues that where this idealized notion of nature is put under too much pressure from direct experiences of flooding, another of the shock absorbers, the representation of “society,” grows in importance. In much of the West, the safety and sanctity of the home is guaranteed by society, so its representation plays an important role in protecting ontological security against natural hazards. How, then, do people maintain that view when their experience of domestic flooding provides evidence of society’s ineffectiveness? Harries argues that they only revise the peripheral elements of the representation and that this enables the representation overall to retain its protective role as part of the cocoon. This, he says, is why people use the discourse of blame. Blaming an institution implies that it retains the capacity to behave otherwise, and even that—in the normal course of things—it will behave otherwise. Harries contends that householders in his interviews used blame to preserve the archetypal notion of society and state as essentially just and competent.

This is bad news for governments that are pursuing the neoliberal agenda of responsibilization and urging householders to act independently to reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards. The argument presented here indicates that this agenda will be hampered by people’s desires to protect their existential sense of security. As described earlier, by installing a resilience measure, a householder might imply to himself that the state is reneging on its responsibility to protect its citizenry or, worse still, is incapable of meeting this responsibility. By undermining the notion of society as the ultimate protector, this puts in jeopardy the conventional representation of home and, in consequence, the sense of ontological security. Harries found that householders who experience such a loss fall into a state of insecurity characterized by profound anxiety.

The protection of representations of home as a place of existential safety, it can be seen, is both helpful and problematic: helpful, because it reduces the anxiety that people can feel about natural hazards, and problematic because it reduces the likelihood of resilience behaviors. In other words, perceptions of “home” may well distort people’s perception of natural hazards, but if this is the only way they can preserve their sense of ontological security, then this distortion is in many ways helpful or even essential.

Can Representations of “Home,” “Nature,” and “Society” Change or Be Changed?

This leads to the questions of whether such representations can change and whether ontological security can be protected without this protection necessitating any distortion of material reality. The literature suggests that although social representations introduce inertia into the responsiveness of individuals and groups, this does not mean that responses to natural hazards cannot change. Despite being surrounded by layers of peripheral “shock absorbers” that take the sting out of new information, social representations are not immutable. Rather, in a process of circular translation between the levels of the superindividual and the individual, they are amenable to change both by social groups and by individuals themselves (Wagner & Hayes, 2005). This suggests that the representations on which ontological security depends are, indeed, open to change.

The main change factor suggested by the literature is direct experience of the hazard itself. Experience has long been known as an important influence on the response to natural hazards. As long ago as the 1960s, a seminal paper by a student of Gilbert White, the “father of floodplain management” and the “leading environmental geographer of the 20th century” (Wescoat, 2006, p. 700), argued that floodplain dwellers lived within “the prison of experience” (Kates, 1962, p. 132). This argument has received validation from many sources, with significant empirical correlations between experience and behavior regularly found in cross-sectional studies of, inter alia, earthquakes and flood hazards (Penning-Rowsell, 1976; Laska, 1990; Sattler et al., 2000; Lindell & Perry, 2000; Grothmann & Reusswig, 2006; Lindell & Hwang, 2008; Siegrist & Gutscher, 2008).

Although the importance of experience is clear, the strength of the statistical relationship between hazard experience and adaptive behavior is consistently lower than one might expect (in the United Kingdom, for example, only 39% of flooded householders take even the simplest of steps to reduce their exposure to future floods—Harries, 2007). If Harries is correct in his assertion that social representations of “home,” “nature,” and so on are key determinants of the response to natural hazards, then the weakness of this relationship would seem to suggest that these representations are often able to resist the onslaught of contradictory evidence carried by hazard events. It is possible, for example, that survival through a hazard event affirms representations of the self as invulnerable and in control (Fox, 1999; Lyng, 1990) and that the experience therefore sustains, rather than undermines, the representations that underpin ontological security. Alternatively, it might take severe and/or repeated events before social representations, and particularly the core of these representations, begin to change. Harries’s (2007) research with U.K. flooded households lends some support to the latter suggestion. His analysis of survey data and in-depth interviews indicates that it usually takes more than one experience of household flooding to weaken the representations that allow people to feel safe from flood risk (Harries, 2008, 2013).

Of course, the earlier discussion of different theories of emotions presents two other possible explanations for the impact of experience and the relative weakness of its effects on hazard preparedness. Following Mary Archer, it might be stated that each time people experience floods, they become better able to understand their generative mechanisms, more able to regulate their emotional reactions, and therefore less concerned about ontological security and more able to take practical adaptive steps. Alternatively, one might argue that the experiential learning associated with witnessing a flood will improve a person’s ability to engage in problem-focused coping and reduce the need for emotion-focused coping, or that it allows them to switch from system-1 thinking to system-2 thinking.


It has been argued here that the struggle for ontological security is a natural part of life for most humans and that to maintain a modus vivendi, people need to be able to rely on delusory but necessary assumptions about the continuity of life, to prioritize the interests of the practical and social orders, and to move concerns about the natural order into the background. This involves the careful management of the emotions and anticipated emotions associated with concerns about the natural order—a process that is a normal part of existence and, indeed, essential for the avoidance of the existential disorganization, and imbalanced life, that the threat of floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters would otherwise bring. The work of J. J. Gross has led to a new subdiscipline of psychology that investigates the different forms that this management can take; in the natural hazards field, this is illustrated by research conducted by Harries.

This represents a key development for natural hazards research, for it suggests that the ability to live without threat to familiar assumptions about time, space, identity, and well-being is as important to humans as the ability to live without threat to material prosperity, physical safety, and physical health. As has been noted, the cognitivist approach to understanding local-level adaptation to natural hazards has failed to integrate these two considerations. Thus, to understand why people do or do not adapt to natural hazards, it becomes necessary to look beyond the traditional territory of cognitivism at the emotional influences that determine which concerns are their priority at any moment in time and the sociocultural factors that shape this prioritization. If emotions are, indeed, one of the senses that allow people and social groups to align their decisions with their needs, then the use of this sense should be recognized and valued, and attempts to put right the “wrong” thinking of emotionally motivated householders and businesses in hazard-exposed areas should be acknowledged as inappropriate, potentially harmful, and likely to fail. Whether consciously, unconsciously, or at the level of practical consciousness, emotions are stitched into the fabric of human decision making. This is especially true regarding issues that threaten fundamental social representations such as that of “home” and is particularly salient following the Enlightenment weakening of the teleological certainty once provided by religion and magic. If Archer is right, then an improved understanding of the causes of natural hazards can ameliorate the threat people perceive these hazards to pose to their sense of fortuna and to the protective cocoon provided for fortuna by representations of “home,” “nature,” and “society.” Such an improved understanding might encourage them to accept those hazards and might therefore render unnecessary those management strategies that involve their denial. Perhaps, this perspective suggests, better understanding of the provenance of natural hazards can allow the notion of “home” to assimilate ideas of flood, storm, and so on without compromising its role as a protective cocoon for the sense of fortuna.

This has important implications for those seeking to promote adaptation to climate change and natural hazards more generally. Recent advances in the study of decision making have brought the realization that behavioral responses to natural hazards are influenced not only by rational calculations about material costs and benefits, but also by people’s desire to regulate the emotions they feel and to preserve for themselves the sense that they are existentially secure. The regulation of emotions, as has been noted, takes several forms—some more conducive to practical natural hazard adaptation than others. For example, in some circumstances, householders in flood-risk areas shy away from adaptations that they believe will cause them increased anxiety (Harries, 2008), while in other circumstances they do not (Harries, 2010). An understanding of why, and when, regulation activity encourages or discourages adaptation would be of great help to those who wish to promote adaptation to natural hazards and to climate change generally. One explanatory factor that Harries (2007) touches on, but fails to fully explore, is normalization—or the integration of new concepts into the existing social representations that support people’s sense of fortuna. If the notion of home-flooding becomes normalized, flooding no longer either presents a threat to ontological security or requires denial, and is more easily responded to with problem-focused coping responses rather than with emotion-focused responses such as denying or blaming others. This is different from the normalization or tacit acceptance of particular forms of practical adaptation. If floodgates became normalized through familiarization (as they are in some of the most commonly flooded areas) or else by some form of social intervention (see Rettie, Burchell, & Barnham, 2014), they, like smoke alarms before them, might become assimilated into the notion of “home” rather than destabilizing it. This transformation of some of the peripheral elements of the social representation of “home” might, in turn, begin to transform the core of the representation and to allow the idea that hazard and hazard resilience can be accepted as part of what “home” means. At the same time, some forms of adaptation are so unobtrusive as to not disturb residents’ sense of security and not require normalization: for example, “fit-and-forget” flood protection measures, such as airbricks that close automatically on contact with floodwater, or flood insurance that is bundled with general household insurance and is invisible to customers (as it often is in the U.K). The trouble with these more unobtrusive adaptation measures is that they enable the continued representation of “home” as essentially impervious to natural hazards and, therefore, the continued use of denial strategies rather than acceptance. This encourages practical adaptation that is partial, leaves people unaware of the aspects of the hazard against which these partial measures offer no protection, and makes them physically vulnerable, therefore, to future hazard events.

Another outstanding issue regards the impacts of hazard experiences, the cycle of emotional responses during these experiences, and whether social representations of home and notions of ontological security are more malleable at particular points in this cycle. The implementation of internal flood resilience measures (e.g., the raising of power points and the substitution of flood-resistant tiling for carpets) provides a case in point. In economic terms, such measures are far more easily implemented during the reinstatement process after a flood than they are when repairs are complete and the home is reoccupied. For those seeking to promote such measures, it would be helpful to know how propitious these two stages of the flood cycle are in terms of the protection of ontological security and whether there is a point in the cycle when emotional resistance to them is likely to be at its lowest.

It would be worth inquiring, too, into cultural influences on ontological security and the social representation of “home,” as well as into the possibility of longer-term changes to these influences. Although they are intended as universal, the arguments in the risk society thesis about the rise of insecurity seem bound to a cultural context in which individualization and individualism are in the ascendant. This suggests the possibility that an increase in collectivism might reduce this insecurity and, therefore, that the promotion of a collective response to natural hazards could reduce the barrier presented by the needs of ontological security. An alternative possibility regards the early signs of the coupling, in public perceptions, of climate change and preexisting natural hazards (Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, 2011). If the prominence of the climate change debate in the public discourse so familiarizes residents of the global north with natural hazards, it is possible that this will normalize the idea of environmental hazards, rendering it less threatening to ontological security and allowing the concept of adaptation to become as much a part of life as seatbelts and smoke alarms.

If ontological security—and the various representational elements of its protective cocoon—is as central to hazard response as has been argued here, then consideration of this sense of security needs to be at the heart of attempts to promote local-level adaptation to natural hazards. Although experience of hazard events can tilt people toward problem-focused coping by improving their understanding of hazards and leaving them better equipped to choose adaptation measures, the relative weakness of the association between experience and adaptation suggests that this is an imperfect change mechanism as well as a costly one in terms of the damage that each hazard experience entails. The formation of new social representations of “home,” “nature,” and “society” might constitute an alternative, less costly, route to a society in which individual actors are able to accept natural hazards as part of normal life rather than deny them, and in which they can take practical adaptive steps without undermining their sense of being in a universe that is ontologically secure.

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(1.) The tendency to emphasize evidence that is concrete or emotionally interesting (Nisbett & Ross, 1980).

(2.) The assumption that recent patterns of events are representative and can be used to predict the future (Nisbett & Ross, 1980).