Annie Duke: Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico: Will We Realize “They” are “Us”?

The situation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has been dire. The lack of electricity has made it difficult to broadcast all the details, but what we already know is undeniably, horribly bad. BuzzFeedNews correspondent Vera Bergengruen (@verambergen) tweeted on September 26, from a Pentagon source, “Approximately 44% of the population of Puerto Rico is without drinking water. Eleven of 69 hospitals have fuel or power.” A series of images of post-Maria Puerto Rico posted by The Atlantic capture examples of the devastation: formerly lush vegetation ripped away, twisted with remains of homes and power lines; a four-lane road torn up like wet cardboard; and people crowding around potential sources of water and cell-phone reception.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma obviously created terrible destruction in Texas and Florida, but the situation is much worse in Puerto Rico after Maria. Estimates vary but it could take three to six months for the island to regain power. Yet compared to Irma and Harvey, the overall response to Hurricane Maria as I weave through my social media seems muted. Between Harvey and Irma, my Twitter has been slammed with news, links, opinions, pleas, and efforts to help. The news coverage, likewise, has been unending: days in advance, during the disasters, and scene after scene after scene of the damage and responses. Maria has just not gotten as much attention.

I’ve been thinking about why, given the scope of the catastrophe, the magnitude of the response hasn’t seemed to measure up.

Disaster fatigue could have something to do with it. This has been a terrible month for natural disasters: Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida, and three earthquakes greater than 6.0 in the last month in Mexico (and several additional quakes and aftershocks in the last few days).

While some disaster fatigue may have set in, our comparative lethargy and lack of attention when it comes to helping Puerto Rico may also be the result of in-group bias. The headline of an article in the New York Times on September 26 pointed to a shocking fact: “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.” The story reported on a poll finding that only 54% of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.

Right after I saw the Times article, I saw a tweet from Jay Van Bavel (@jayvanbavel), a social neuroscientist in the psychology department at NYU. He linked to the article, citing this statistic in particular: “More than 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared with only 4 in 10 of those who do not.”

Van Bavel pointed out that “Empathy is parochial.”

We feel much more empathy toward those within our own tribe, treating those within group very differently than those outside of our group. Think about your emotional response to the recent Mexican earthquakes versus the American hurricanes. For Mexico, there was a general outpouring of concern and support. But when those hurricanes hit Texas and Florida – hit us – to quote a thousand movie trailers, “This time … it was personal.” There was a sense of urgency we felt to help the situation.

The coverage of and reaction to Puerto Rico feels like it is somewhere in between the reaction to the Mexican earthquakes and the reaction to Harvey and Irma: Maria is a terrible tragedy, we hope for the safety of the survivors, but it does not feel as much an attack on us. That’s not as surprising once you know that only around half of Americans see Puerto Rico as part of the U.S., as part of “us.”