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Tornado Survivors Surprisingly Optimistic, Study Finds

TUESDAY, March 5 (HealthDay News) -- Living through a disaster does not diminish people's sense of optimism, according to a new study.

But this type of optimism could undermine emergency preparedness efforts, the researchers said.

They interviewed college students and residents of a town in Iowa that was hit by a tornado. The interviews, conducted one month, six months and one year after the twister, revealed that the participants believed their risk of injury from a future tornado was lower than that of the average person in Iowa.

The researchers were surprised to find that people who lived in neighborhoods damaged by the tornado were more optimistic for the first six months than those in neighborhoods where no damage occurred, according to the study, published online March 1 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

"We speculate that for a while, they felt that lightning wouldn't strike twice in the same place," study author Jerry Suls, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, said in a journal news release. "A year later, their optimism was comparable to the people in the undamaged neighborhoods."

Suls said the optimism found among the residents after their town was hit by the tornado is normal and may help explain why some people are so reluctant to seek shelter during natural disasters.

"People tend to maintain an optimistic view, particularly with regard to their fate compared to other people," Suls said. "Even the proximity of a significant weather disaster seems to do little to shake that optimism."

It's possible that living for a long period of time among the rubble from a disaster, as was the case for the people in this study, increases defensiveness and denial about the risks from future storms, Suls suggested.

He also noted that with weather disasters seemingly more frequent in recent years, it is possible that there is a cumulative effect on people's optimism and feelings of vulnerability.

Further research is needed to identify how the attitudes identified in this study could affect emergency preparedness, Suls said.

More information

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has more about coping with disaster.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, news release, March 1, 2013

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