IsraAID workers clear away rubble in Nepal IsraAID workers clear away rubble in Nepal IsraAID volunteers pass bricks along to clear the rubble leftover from the earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25, 2015. (Photo: IsraAID/Mickey Noam Alon)

Why do people become so nice during natural disasters?

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were destructive, but they brought out something beautiful in people.

We might remember 2017 as the summer of hurricanes. Hurricane Harvey struck Houston with a vengeance in August. Hurricane Irma was next, arriving on Florida's doorstep and causing so much mayhem that the Walt Disney World Resort shut down for the first time in its history. And Hurricane Maria has just battered Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Natural disasters are, of course, disastrous. But they tend to come with a predicable silver lining: human kindness. Aid organizations rush to help rebuild, hotels take in the displaced, and, on a personal level, strangers just seem more willing to give each other a hand. It's as though a switch flips in our brains, and everyone becomes family.

To find out why people suddenly become so kind in the face of danger, I talked to Dan Ariely, an Israeli behavioral economist at Duke University who studies human decision-making. According to Ariely, a shift in perspective has a lot to do with this change.

IsraAID volunteers distribute supplies to children and adults in Carapongo, Peru, after devastating floods and mudslides destroyed much of the region's infrastructure.IsraAID volunteers distribute supplies to children and adults in Carapongo, Peru, after devastating floods and mudslides destroyed much of the region's infrastructure. (Photo: IsraAID)

"When things are really bad, I think small things become less important," Ariely explained. "So all of a sudden, we focus on the things that are important."

I knew what he meant. Last year, I was studying in a program in West Virginia. At the very end of the program, we were hit by a series of storms and floods. For three days, the power went out and the plumbing stopped working. A dried-out creek bed near my house turned into a raging river, whose waters touched the leaves of the trees lining it. A neighbor said he saw a house on fire floating down a river.

All of a sudden, we forgot about our studies, our jobs and even whatever tiny dramas had broken out between us. All that mattered was making sure we could find enough food and water every day, particularly before the sun went down and we were left in the dark.

A pair of IsraAid volunteers helps clear out a flood-damaged home.A pair of IsraAid volunteers help clear out a flood-damaged home. (Photo: Courtesy IsraAid)

Having a common enemy – the disaster – is another factor that brings people together. Ariely remembers a study where researchers found that, if people are negotiating with each other, and the moderator is really nasty, then something surprising happens.

"They actually come to the agreement sooner," Ariely said. Apparently, the moderator becomes a common enemy, enabling the people negotiating to work together.

In my own experience, people really did become kind in the face of the storm. We shared food, warned each other of falling rocks and encouraged one another not to be afraid. I knew it would be like that. I'd been in a couple hurricanes, a tornado or two and a microburst before. My strongest memories from those times weren't about the storms or the destruction. They were about the people around me – friends, family, total strangers – who suddenly dropped whatever distance they had before and acted like teammates.

"It’s about a joint mission," Ariely told me. "In regular life, we compete in all kinds of ways ... When something is big, we move from competition to cooperation, because we need to fight something together."

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