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How Are We Going to Cope With the Big One? : UCLA Psychologists Poll Teachers, Students in Effort to Find Quake 'Victimization' Strategies

August 26, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Shortly before he left Ann Arbor, Mich., for UCLA last winter, psychology professor Darrin Lehman learned of a UCLA campus earthquake report. The report by expert seismologists projected a 90% chance of a major quake--registering 7.0 or more on the Richter Scale--in the Los Angeles Basin within the next 20 years.

It also listed buildings on the UCLA campus that were not up to earthquake-resistance code, 15 of them ranking "very poor" seismically. Lehman was "most upset" to learn that Franz Hall Tower, his future campus office (along with most of the UCLA psychology department), fell into the "very poor" category.

"I must say, I was very shook up--no pun intended," Lehman told a large audience at the 94th annual conference of the American Psychological Assn. here last weekend.

Freaking Out

"Being there all of three days and freaking out," Lehman responded in proper social psychological fashion. He and fellow psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, an expert in cognitive behavior, decided to study the situation.

In fact the pair was well suited to examine how people at UCLA were feeling about the earthquake report. In developing a program on how people adapt to and cope with disasters that are highly likely, but whose timings are unknown, Lehman and Taylor had been targeting their attention on high-risk cardiac patients, diagnosed cancer patients with uncertain prognoses and HTLV-III positive homosexual men at risk for AIDS. People living in structurally unsafe buildings facing the prospect of a major earthquake became the fourth sample population.

Lehman and Taylor were interested not merely in how people cope with prospective victimization, but also what constitutes "adaptive coping." The term, Lehman conceded, "is often difficult to define."

In some cases, Lehman said, denial may seem to be adaptive "because the individuals . . . are less anxious and upset by the prospective events than are individuals who cope with these events by being more vigilant." By the same token, denial could actually mean that potential preparatory practices that might lessen the impact of an impending disaster were being overlooked.

Coping Strategies

Lehman and Taylor determined therefore to investigate the relationship between preparatory coping measures and "more emotion-focused" coping strategies, such as denial. In researching the cardiac and earthquake studies, they decided also to add "interventions designed to increase preparedness" to the study.

In undertaking the earthquake report inquiry, the two researchers began with "an ethnographic" approach. "We were both in a good position," Lehman said, "to wander up to people and say, 'Gee, I'm sure you read about this report, what do you think about this situation? What's your take on this?' " The answers, he said, were "quite fascinating."

There was, for example, the psychology faculty member who replied that he had no worries at all about the possibility of a major earthquake. His office was on the top floor of Franz Hall, he explained, so if the building did happen to collapse while he was in it, he would obviously come out on top. Or, there was the man who said he was unconcerned because his office was in the basement, the structurally safest floor in the building.

"People," Lehman said, "had the most ingenious reasons for not needing to worry about the situation, either because it wasn't going to happen, the experts were blowing the whole thing out of proportion, the media was exaggerating it, or, even if it did happen, they were in some sense invulnerable."

To achieve less anecdotal data, Lehman and Taylor aimed their study at 240 residents of UCLA's undergraduate on-campus housing. Like Franz Hall Tower, the four student high-rise dormitories on campus (housing 3,200 students) had been rated "very poor" seismically. On the same "good" to "very poor" rating scale, a group of three-story wooden structures called suites, home to about 700 UCLA undergraduates, had been deemed "good." Seeking to uncover differences in knowledge, preparedness and coping, Lehman and Taylor pilot-tested an initial 120 students, then surveyed an additional 120, 60 in each building type.

5% Read Report

A full 84% of the sample was familiar with the earthquake report. And yet, Lehman said, "only 5% of the subjects had actually read the report." On a four-point scale from "not at all worried" to "extremely worried," the majority of both sets of respondents (representing dorm occupants and suite occupants) reported they were "a little" worried. As for their own estimate of the probability of a major quake occurring within 20 years--in spite of the 90% figure that had been widely publicized--Lehman said the mean probability estimate from his student sampling was only 63%. For 82% of the respondents, the probability figure was less than 90%.

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