Over the last 15 years, Risa Palm, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of geography, has studied how people cope with earthquake risk. She’s discovered that Californians often think the potential for danger is minimal—they choose to believe that low risk means no risk and fail to take precautions. Even in high-risk areas, she says, some people fail to buy earthquake insurance. Many of her findings fit nicely with risk research in psychology.

Then a Japanese colleague, Shinobu Kitayama, wondered if Palm’s findings might be culturally bound. Do American and Japanese people react to the threat of an earthquake in similar ways?

It turns out they don’t. Palm and Kita-yama surveyed almost 5,000 households in seven American and Japanese communities at high risk for an earthquake. They discovered that geographic and cultural traits help shape people’s response to risk. For two nations that often borrow each other’s emergency practices and policy, knowing that can make the difference between effective and ineffective emergency planning.

When Palm ranked issues concerning each community, she found the Japanese more distressed by the threat of earthquakes than the Californians. In fact, more Japanese expressed concern about environmental hazards in general. While earthquakes and air pollution topped Japan’s list of worries, crime and family problems made Americans more anxious.

In part, this reflects the geography of Japan, Palm says. “Japanese people live at very high densities,” she explains. “An earthquake in a place like Kobe is exceedingly dangerous and very disruptive—far more so than for people living at lower densities.”

Older Japanese people showed strong concern about the environment in general, Palm found. Confucian culture holds the elderly responsible for protecting and passing on the Japanese way of life.

Intensive bombing during World War II, when many residential areas were destroyed, may also have colored the outlook of the older generation. “They’ve seen destruction, and they’ve felt out of control in their own neighborhoods,” she says. “In California, we haven’t seen this.”

The survey also revealed that people interact differently in each country—differences that affect not only social relations but also people’s emergency preparations.

The Japanese, she found, tend to act interdependently. They make decisions and prepare for emergencies on a communal level. They often store food and supplies with their neighbors, and most say they look to the government in times of distress.

Americans, on the other hand, prepare for emergencies as individuals. Many are optimistic that they can do something to mitigate the destruction caused by an earthquake. Most stock canned food in the pantry, keep a first aid kit and fire extinguisher on hand, and secure items in their homes. And they rely on earthquake insurance or building reinforcements, not the government, to protect their home and property.

Japanese and Americans also rely on their communities. But, despite having a higher level of social connection, Japanese people reported less willingness to help others in times of emergency. Although this seems contradictory for a highly interdependent society, it makes sense in Japan.

It’s not at all strange for an American to say hello to or help a stranger,” Palm says. “In Japan, people are extremely interdependent, but there’s a huge boundary between in-group and out-group. If the stranger is in the out-group, a Japanese person may be less likely to help.”

Does this mean Japanese people don’t reach out to one another in emergencies? Not necessarily. Kitayama thinks the survey results may reflect differences in American and Japanese self-perception.

The Japanese, who do not try to engage in self-enhancing behavior, are more modest,” Palm says. “But Americans, who want to be praised for being good and generous people, answer, `Yes, of course I would help.’”

Why do these differences matter? The United States and Japan often collaborate—to learn from each others’ mistakes, conduct joint research, and borrow each other’s policies. But taking emergency plans out of context may lessen their effectiveness. Both sides should keep in mind that, even during an earthquake, people act according to their views of society and self.

Mary Dalrymple was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Funded by the National Science Foundation.