Earthquake risk over time windows: Do people bias risk to the end of an interval?
Located on the edge of two tectonic plates, New Zealand has numerous fault lines and seismic risk across the whole country. The way this risk is communicated affects whether people prepare effectively or at all. Research has shown that perceptions of risk are affected by slight changes in wording, and that probabilities commonly reported by experts and media are often interpreted subjectively based on context. In the context of volcanoes, research has found that given a certain probability of a volcano in a specific time window, people perceive risk as higher in later time intervals within that window. The present study examines this pattern with regard to earthquakes and aftershocks in the New Zealand context. Participants in both Wellington (N = 102) and Christchurch (N = 98) were presented an expert statement of earthquake risk within a given time window in Wellington and aftershock risk in Christchurch, and asked to rate their perception of risk in specific intervals across the time window. For a Wellington earthquake, participants perceived risk as incrementally higher toward the end of the 50 year time window whereas for a Christchurch aftershock, risk perception increased slightly for the first three intervals of the 12 month time window. Likelihood of preparing was constant over the time windows, with Wellington citizens rating themselves more likely than Christchurch citizens to prepare for either an earthquake or aftershock, irrespective of current level of preparedness. These findings suggest that people view earthquakes as more likely later toward the end of a given time window and that they view aftershocks very differently to scientific predictions.