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UBC study finds vivid images can help harness ‘gut feelings’ for disaster preparedness

WATCH: A team from UBC is hoping their visual image of what a Vancouver school could look like after 'the big one' will galavanize people into demanding government move faster on seismic upgrades. Linda Aylesworth reports.

Can the right image motivate people to prepare for a natural disaster?

That was the question underlying a new UBC study that looked at how British Columbians absorbed messaging around earthquake risk.

The study, which was published recently in the journal Collabra: Psychology, saw social psychologists team up with engineers and an artist to produce an image of a Vancouver elementary school damaged by a powerful earthquake.

READ MORE: B.C. can rest easy – for now – despite ever-increasing earthquakes on West Coast, experts say

Researchers then showed the image to a group of people to gauge their support of speeding up seismic upgrades and their willingness to do disaster preparation in their own homes.

“To help people think about risks like earthquakes, the government typically provides abstract, quantitative information such as statistics,” said lead author and PhD candidate Iris Lok.

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Parents concerned about plans to replace Vancouver high school
Parents concerned about plans to replace Vancouver high school

“But people often make decisions about risks by relying primarily on their gut feelings.”

Lok got started on the work after discussing concerns around seismic risk with her thesis advisor, Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, who was about to send her child off to Kindergarten.

“I began this work because of my work in this very slow progress that’s been made around seismic upgrades in schools, I was frustrated by the notion that so many parents had to send their kids off to schools that we know are not safe in the case of an earthquake,” Dunn told Global News.

“”I was frustrated by the complacency and sort of political apathy of this issue and I thought, how can we break through this complacency.

To gauge the effectiveness of the image, study participants were invited to sign a petition calling for the fast-tracking of seismic upgrades for B.C. schools. They were also asked to fill out a survey of their own earthquake preparedness plans and support for city earthquake initiatives.

READ MORE: ‘Inevitable’ 9.0 earthquake, tsunami will hit Canada’s West Coast: expert

One group of participants was shown the image above of a real high-risk Vancouver elementary school on the wait list for seismic work.

“The engineers on our team envisioned what would happen to the school during a major earthquake,” said Lok.

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Seismic upgrade plans leaving B.C. parents frustrated
Seismic upgrade plans leaving B.C. parents frustrated

“Then, our artist brought their vision to life by creating this vivid representation of what the school would look like, based on the best available science.”

A second group of participants were not shown the image, but instead were given government statistics about the seismic risk.

READ MORE: Two Vancouver elementary schools to get $35.8M seismic upgrades

The study fond that 77.3 per cent of those who were shown the image opted to sign the petition, compared to 68 per cent of those who were shown only statistics.

However, the study found that the image of the damaged school had little effect on whether people would change the way they prepared for a quake, or their support for city initiatives.

“This research provides initial evidence that using vivid images to convey scientific information can be an effective part of a broader strategy for motivating people to support risk mitigation initiatives,” concludes the study.

B.C. has completed seismic upgrades on 171 schools, with 15 projects currently under construction.

Another 27 schools are proceeding to construction, with 30 under business case development.

An additional 247 schools are considered “future priorities.”