Why did they "choose" to stay? Perspectives of Hurricane Katrina observers and survivors.
ABSTRACT Models of agency--powerful implicit assumptions about what constitutes normatively "good" action--shaped how observers and survivors made meaning after Hurricane Katrina. In Study 1, we analyzed how 461 observers perceived survivors who evacuated (leavers) or stayed (stayers) in New Orleans. Observers described leavers positively (as agentic, independent, and in control) and stayers negatively (as passive and lacking agency). Observers' perceptions reflected the disjoint model of agency, which is prevalent in middle-class White contexts and defines "good" actions as those that emanate from within the individual and proactively influence the environment. In Study 2, we examined interviews with 79 survivors and found that leavers and stayers relied on divergent models of agency. Leavers emphasized independence, choice, and control, whereas stayers emphasized interdependence, strength, and faith. Although both leavers and stayers exercised agency, observers failed to recognize stayers' agency and derogated them because observers assumed that being independent and in control was the only way to be agentic.
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ABSTRACT: Americans live in a political, social, and historical context that values personal freedom and choice above all else, an emphasis that has been amplified by contemporary psychology. However, this article reviews research that shows that in non-Western cultures and among working-class Westerners, freedom and choice do not have the meaning or importance they do for the university-educated people who have been the subjects of almost all research on this topic. We cannot assume that choice, as understood by educated, affluent Westerners, is a universal aspiration. The meaning and significance of choice are cultural constructions. Moreover, even when choice can foster freedom, empowerment, and independence, it is not an unalloyed good. Too much choice can produce a paralyzing uncertainty, depression, and selfishness. In the United States, the path to well-being may require that we strike a balance between the positive and negative consequences of proliferating choice in every domain of life. (c) 2010 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc..Journal of Consumer Research. 01/2010; 37(2):344-355.
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ABSTRACT: The policy of “leave early or stay and defend”, often shortened to the “stay or go” policy, has been the subject of critical review in the Royal Commission that followed the recent disastrous bushfires in Victoria, Australia. The need for people to evacuate or stay and defend their property and protect themselves is a critical life safety decision for many people on days of high bushfire activity. Some limited research has been undertaken into this individual decision making in bushfires. Other fields of emergency management also require people to make similar decisions as to whether to evacuate or stay in a “defend in place” situation. This paper examines research into “stay or go” strategies and decision making performance for high rise buildings, looking for common factors that may inform the bushfire situation and potential reforms for policy. Similarly, research into Hurricane Katrina and the failures to evacuate when mandated provide further insight into factors which can affect or postpone decision making. A number of common improvements related to emergency preparedness, situation awareness and trusted communication systems emerge in all these fields. However, this paper also suggests that this decision making in bushfires is more complex that just two simple options of “stay or go”. A greater understanding of group behavior and socio-cultural factors and their impact on personal decision making is required if more effective emergency management is to occur in the bushfire domain.Fire Technology 01/2012; · 0.70 Impact Factor
- Social Psychology Quarterly 01/2010; · 1.89 Impact Factor
Why Did They ‘‘Choose’’
Perspectives of Hurricane Katrina Observers and Survivors
Nicole M. Stephens,1MarYam G. Hamedani,1Hazel Rose Markus,1Hilary B. Bergsieker,2and
1Stanford University and2Princeton University
ABSTRACT—Models of agency—powerful implicit assump-
tions about what constitutes normatively ‘‘good’’ action—
shaped how observers and survivors made meaning after
Hurricane Katrina. In Study 1, we analyzed how 461 ob-
servers perceived survivors who evacuated (leavers) or
ers positively (as agentic, independent, and in control)
and stayers negatively (as passive and lacking agency).
Observers’ perceptions reflected the disjoint model of
agency, which is prevalent in middle-class White contexts
and defines ‘‘good’’ actions as those that emanate from
within the individual and proactively influence the envi-
ronment. In Study 2, we examined interviews with 79
survivors and found that leavers and stayers relied on
divergent models of agency. Leavers emphasized inde-
pendence, choice, and control, whereas stayers empha-
sized interdependence, strength, and faith. Although both
leavers and stayers exercised agency, observers failed to
recognize stayers’ agency and derogated them because
observers assumed that being independent and in control
was the only way to be agentic.
Etched in Americans’ collective memory of Hurricane Katrina
are images ofsurvivors standing on rooftops awaiting help. With
these images came the claim that survivors failed to take ap-
propriate actions. Responding to the rising death toll in New
Orleans, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director
Michael Brown said, ‘‘That’s going to be attributable a lot to
people who . . . . chose not to leave’’ (CNN Weather, 2005).
Similarly, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
explained, ‘‘Officials called for a mandatory evacuation. Some
people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their
part’’ (CNN Transcripts, 2005). Brown and Chertoff assumed
that survivors who stayed ‘‘chose’’ not to evacuate and were
therefore to blame for their suffering. We suggest that these
by a powerful, yet often tacit, set of assumptions about what
constitutes normatively ‘‘good’’ action—a model of agency. As
Brown’s and Chertoff’s comments suggest, this implicit model
led observers to interpret action in a context-specific way that
fostered a lack of empathy for survivors who stayed.
victim blaming, stereotyping, and belief in a just world—pro-
vide useful frameworks for understanding observers’ responses
to survivors (Adams, O’Brien, & Nelson, 2006; Napier, Man-
disodza, Andersen, & Jost, 2006). Attribution theory predicts
that observers will locate the causes of survivors’ divergent
outcomes in their individual attributes (Ross & Nisbett, 1991),
took the particular forms they did. Highlighting another im-
portant feature of the explanatory sequence, the research we
report here addresses not observers’ explanations of the causes
of survivors’ behavior (i.e., attribution), but instead how ob-
servers perceive and make sense of survivors’ actions. In two
studies, we contrasted observers’ and survivors’ perspectives to
illuminate the contextually derivedmodels ofagency that shape
howpeople makesense ofbehaviorandwhatpeopleperceive as
sensible, culturally appropriate action.
We suggest that observers’ responses to Katrina survivors
were predominantly grounded in the disjoint model of agency—
the most prevalent model in mainstream middle-class White
contexts (Markus, Uchida, Omoregie, Townsend, & Kitayama,
2006; Savani, Markus, & Conner, 2008). The disjoint model
assumes that agency emanates from within the individual and
defines ‘‘good’’ actions as those that influence the environment
Address correspondence to Nicole Stephens, Stanford Univer-
sity, Department of Psychology, Stanford, CA 94305-2310, e-mail:
Volume 20—Number 7Copyright r 2009 Association for Psychological Science
& Kitayama, 2003). According to this model, a good Hurricane
situational constraints, and—through independence, choice,
and control—found a way to evacuate.
The disjoint model is not the only model of agency. As a
growing literature on culture and agency has revealed, there are
many ways toact in and respond tothe world (Holland&Quinn,
1987;Morling, Kitayama, &Miyamoto,2002; Morris, Menon,&
Ames, 2001). Defined in a socioculturally neutral manner,
agency is acting in the world (Markus & Kitayama, 2003) and
need not—as is often assumed in Western middle-class con-
texts—involve influence or a commitment to an individualist
from within the individual (Gould, 1999). Agency can also in-
volve adjusting the self to the world. Prior research has identi-
fied a conjoint model of agency, which assumes that agency is
‘‘responsive to obligations and expectations of others, roles, and
situations’’(Markus &Kitayama, 2003,p.7)and defines ‘‘good’’
actions as those that adjust to the environment and promote
interdependence with other people. Although a conjoint model
elements of this type of model, such as an emphasis on con-
necting with others, also pervade working-class American
contexts (Markus, Ryff, Curhan, & Palmersheim, 2004; Ste-
phens, Markus, & Townsend, 2007).1
SOCIAL CLASS AND AGENCY
substantially intheir resources, provide one important source of
models of agency (Markus & Kitayama, 2003). Survivors who
evacuated prior to Katrina (leavers) lived in primarily middle-
class White contexts, whereas survivors who stayed (stayers)
lived in primarily working-class Black contexts (Dyson, 2006).
greater access to news, more reliable transportation, and more
geographically extended social networks (Lieberman, 2006).
Given the influence-enabling resources (i.e., material ad-
vantages and cultural capital, including knowledge, skills, and
advantages based on societal status) associated with middle-
class White contexts (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977/1992), we
hypothesized that leavers’ firsthand accounts of their experi-
ences would emphasize choice, independence, and control—
themes associated with a disjoint model. By contrast, people in
working-class Black contexts often lacked the necessary re-
sources to evacuate and effectively enact a disjoint model. De-
spite these constraints, we hypothesized that stayers were not
passive but agentic (i.e., acting in the world), in ways that were
appropriate to their contexts. Building on prior research, we
anticipated that narratives of stayers would reflect elements of a
conjoint model, including an emphasis on interdependence and
connection with others (Nobles, 1991; Stephens et al., 2007), as
well as emphases on being strong and maintaining faith in God
(Ryff, Singer, & Palmersheim, 2004; Snibbe & Markus, 2005).
Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to examine how
people in different contexts make meaning in response to the
same historically significant event. We present two studies that
illuminate Katrina observers’ and survivors’ models of agency.
In Study 1, we analyzed how two samples of observers—relief
workers and lay observers—perceived leavers and stayers. Giv-
on the disjoint model, and thus perceive leavers as influencing
agents and stayers as lacking agency.
In Study 2, we examined survivors’ accounts of their own ex-
periences. Because stayers’ and leavers’ contexts differed sub-
that leavers’ accounts would emphasize themes associated with
disjoint agency, and stayers’ accounts would emphasize themes
associated with conjoint agency. Thus, we expected to find that
leavers and stayers were both agentic, but in different ways, and
that observers derogated stayers because they assumed that in-
fluencing the environment was the only way to be agentic.
For Study 1, we recruited observers to complete an on-line sur-
vey. If observers view survivors through the disjoint model, they
should view leavers, who conformed to this model, as sensible
and influencing agents, and they should view stayers, who de-
viated from this model, as not sensible and lacking agency.
To examine whether direct contact with survivors affected ob-
servers’ perceptions of them, we selected two samples of ob-
servers. First, we recruited 144 relief workers who had direct
contact with survivors and spent an average of 3.5 weeks in the
hurricane-threatened area. To obtain a diverse sample, we re-
cruited participants through Red Cross Listservs, as well as
through forums and advertisements on Web sites for Katrina
relief workers. This sample included employees and volunteers
from nonprofit and governmental organizations (e.g., Salvation
Army), doctors, counselors, firefighters, and police officers.
Second, we recruited lay observers (161 adults and 156 stu-
consequences of the disaster from afar. We recruited adult lay
dorm Listservs. Because the adult and student samples did not
differ in any analyses, we present results of analyses in which
1Models of agency are not fixed properties of people. They derive from the
context and change upon exposure to contexts where other models are prevalent
(Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999).
Volume 20—Number 7
N.M. Stephens et al.
these two groups were combined. Table 1 presents demographic
information about the Study 1 participants.
We used responses on two within-subjects tasks as our primary
dependent variables. After completing these tasks, participants
also reported demographic information and answered questions
about their political orientation and religious views.
people who evacuated from the hurricane-affected area and three
We counterbalanced the order of these two questions.
Second, a vignette task assessed whether participants per-
ceived survivors’ actions as sensible. Each participant read two
vignettes, one about a leaver and one about a stayer (in coun-
terbalanced order). Personal characteristics and family struc-
ture were consistent across the vignettes (i.e., a ‘‘friendly,
responsible, andhardworking’’survivor‘‘lives with two kids and
a spouse’’). In the leaver vignette, survivor ‘‘K’’ had resources
and evacuated (i.e., went to another state to ‘‘stay with a friend
lacked resources and stayed (i.e., ‘‘didn’t have any close friends
or family to stay with who lived outside of the hurricane-
threatened area’’). Participants were asked, ‘‘Given the situa-
response scale ranged from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).
Two research assistants who were blind to our hypotheses coded
each word for valence (positive or negative) and thematic con-
tent (mean k 5 .93). To capture the thematic content of the
person descriptions, we created a code for each distinct theme
that occurred in at least 5% of responses.
Although observers described stayers as lacking resources
and leavers as having resources (see Table 2), they still viewed
leavers as influencing agents and stayers as lacking agency. As
hypothesized, descriptions of leavers were more likely than
descriptions of stayers to include positive attributes that reflect
the cultural ideals of a disjoint model of agency. For example,
leavers were described as independent (e.g., self-reliant, in
control) and responsible (e.g., hardworking, conscientious).
Descriptions of leavers were also more likely than descriptions
ofstayerstorefer tohigh-arousalemotions (e.g.,angry,agitated)
and action-requiring states (e.g., being prepared, planning). By
contrast, observers were more likely to describe stayers as
having negative attributes that together connote inaction and
lack of agency. For example, stayers were described as passive
(e.g., lazy, dependent), irresponsible (e.g., careless, negligent),
to low-arousal emotions (e.g., sad, depressed) and inactive
states, such as being unprepared (e.g., disorganized, ill-equip-
ped) and defeated (e.g., hopeless, devastated).
To assess whether participants’ perceptions were moderated
used the valence coding to create a positivity index. For each
response (comprising three descriptors), we subtracted the
number of items coded as negative from the number coded as
positive. As expected, observers described leavers more posi-
.001. A repeated measures analysis of variance with between-
subjects factors revealed a significant interaction between
sample (relief worker vs. lay observer) and survivor group
Demographic Characteristics of Observers in Study 1
(n 5 144)
Adults (n 5 161) Students (n 5 156)
Gender 52% female,
20.8 Age (mean)
Annual household income
(median; thousands of dollars)b
Number of children (mean)
aMiddle class was defined as having some college education (for relief workers and adult lay observers) or as having
at least one parent with a college education (for students).bHousehold income was assessed on a categorical scale.
Volume 20—Number 7
Perspectives of Katrina Observers and Survivors
(leaver vs. stayer), F(1, 459) 5 16.18, p < .001. Relative to lay
observers, relief workers viewed stayers less negatively,
t(306) 5 2.34, p 5 .02, and leavers less positively, t(239) 5
3.13, p 5 .002 (see Fig. 1). In follow-up analyses, we found that
participants’ liberalism, conservatism, and religiosity were not
For the vignette task, we compared observers’ ratings of the
extent to which each survivor’s actions made sense. A paired-
perceived leavers’ actions as making more sense (M 5 3.87)
than stayers’ actions (M 5 2.65), t(460) 5 25.91, p < .001.
Vignette order did not affect responses.
influencing agents and stayers as lacking agency and saw
that these perceptions arose because observers assumed that
influencing the environment through independence and control
was the only way to be agentic. Thus, stayers’ actions, which
deviated from the disjoint model, were viewed as not making
sense and as lacking agency. Notably, observers derogated
survivors who stayed as stupid and passive, despite clearly
money or transportation).
Percentage of Descriptions of Leavers and Stayers Coded for Each Category in Study 1
Coding category Examples Leavers (%) Stayers (%)
Intelligent, sensible, wise
Responsible, cautious, conscientious
Independent, in control, self-reliant
Dumb, ignorant, foolish
Irresponsible, careless, negligent
Dependent, helpless, lazy
Uncompromising, stubborn, strong-headed
Angry, stressed, agitated
Prepared, planned, organized
Sad, depressed, grateful
Ill-equipped, uninformed, disorganized
Isolated, cramped, trapped
Defeated, devastated, hopeless
Lucky, fortunate, good luck
Unlucky, unfortunate, bad luck
Well-off, rich, privileged
Poor, broke, no transportation
White, Caucasian, European American
Black, African American, minority
Sick, dying, ill
Elderly, female, male
Note. McNemar’s tests of homogeneity between percentages of leavers’ and stayers’ descriptions coded for a given cat-
egory were all significant at the p < .001 level, except in the case of ‘‘defeated,’’ p < .05, and ‘‘bad luck,’’ p < .01.
Disaster Relief WorkersLay Observers
Fig. 1. Mean positivity of relief workers’ and lay observers’ perceptions
of Katrina survivors as a function of whether survivors stayed in New
Orleans or left. Error bars denote ?1 SE.
Volume 20—Number 7
N.M. Stephens et al.
Relief workers, like lay observers, derogated stayers as
lacking agency. The convergent perspectives of these different
model of agency in mainstream American contexts. In their
person descriptions, however, relief workers derogated stayers
somewhat less than lay observers did. This divergence could
have occurred because relief workers and lay observers had
different views (e.g., racial attitudes) prior to the hurricane. Our
theory, however, suggests that exposure to the contexts of sur-
vivors shaped relief workers’ models of agency and their per-
ceptions of survivors.
Observers’ derogation of stayers is consistent with the asser-
tion that psychological biases, such as prejudice and belief in a
just world, shaped responses to Katrina. Our purpose, however,
disjoint model that underlies observers’ perceptions and con-
tributes to these more specific biases. Numerous psychological
unfortunate outcomes in stayers’ own individual attributes and
thus view stayers negatively. Models-of-agency theory predicts
more specifically how stayers will be derogated—that they will
good action. Given the pervasive negative representations of
African Americans (Oyserman & Harrison, 1998), observers
could have derogated stayers in myriad ways, such as by de-
scribing them as immoral, crazy, dangerous, or devious. How-
those that influence the environment, observers in our study
(e.g., lazy, passive, and careless) that together connote inaction
and the absence of agency.
Moving beyond observers, Study 2 examined firsthand accounts
of Katrina survivors. Three months after Katrina, we asked
survivors to describe their hurricane-related experiences. We
hypothesized that leavers’ and stayers’ narratives would reflect
divergent models of agency.
Seventy-nine participants were interviewed for 1 hr and com-
pensated $50. To obtain a diverse sample, we sent study invi-
tations to survivors on a Department of Housing and Urban
Development mailing list and posted flyers in New Orleans and
San Antonio, Texas. We also used on-line advertisements and
Listservstorecruit survivors whoevacuatedbeforeKatrina.Our
samples of stayers and leavers (see Table 3) were demographi-
cally comparable to the overall populations of Katrina survivors
who stayed and evacuated, respectively (Center for American
Progress, 2005). We conducted 57 interviews in person and 22
over the telephone. All interviews were audiotaped with per-
mission and transcribed.
In this study, we contrasted the perspectives of leavers and
stayers. We did so for two reasons. First, such a focus allowedus
ers and stayers) with survivors’ understandings of themselves.
Second, because most middle-class White participants were
leavers andmost working-classBlack participantswere stayers,
the experiences of leaving and staying provided a conceptually
leavers and stayers helped to specify some of the social expe-
riences that produce the divergent life outcomes tied to the
2005; Markus, 2008). It is these differential social experiences
that shape and maintain models of agency.
We matched the race of interviewers and survivors to help par-
ticipants feel comfortable sharing their experiences (Schaeffer,
1980). The interviewers asked participants to describe their
what happened to you before, during, and after the hurricane.’’
Participants subsequently provided demographic information
and answered questions about their well-being and mental
Three coders who were blind to our hypotheses read the tran-
scripts and identified explicit agency-related themes present
in survivors’ descriptions of what they did and why. Thirteen
non-mutually exclusive codes that each required minimal in-
in the coding scheme (see Table 4; mean k 5 .90).
Demographic Characteristics of Leavers and Stayers in Study 2
(n 5 38)
(n 5 41)
Annual personal income (mean)
Number of children (mean)
Born in New Orleans
Has flood insurance
Owns a vehicle
aMiddle class was defined as having some college education.
Volume 20—Number 7
Perspectives of Katrina Observers and Survivors
To illuminate leavers’ and stayers’ models of agency, we con-
trasted their narratives (see Table 4). The two groups were
equally likely to refer to family, engage in downward compari-
son, mention race or class, and describe their attachment to
home. Beyond these similarities, survivors’ narratives revealed
different models of agency.
Themes Among Leavers
ourhypotheses. Consistent with observers’perceptions, leavers’
narratives emphasized choice, independence, and control, re-
flecting a disjoint model of agency. Enabled by the resources
available in middle-class White contexts, leavers generally
described themselves as agents who sought to influence and
exert control over their environments. Compared with stayers,
leavers more often placed an emphasis on choice in describing
their efforts to control the situation. One leaver explained, ‘‘I
traffic.’’ Leavers also described assessing the risk related to the
hurricane and focusing on the future more often than stayers.
Revealing this future focus, one leaver said, ‘‘I started making
plans. I immediately got on the phone and called hotels.’’ Fi-
nally, compared with stayers, leavers more often emphasized a
fear oflosing independencein the hurricane’saftermath.As one
leaver said, ‘‘Being away from home means you’ve lost your
independence and feel totally dependent on others.’’
Themes Among Stayers
stayers’ narratives emphasized interdependence with others,
way of acting in the world than leavers did. Given the limited
material resources available in working-class Black contexts,
stayers more often than leavers emphasized the importance of
connection to and caring for others. Highlighting the value of
interdependence, one stayer said, ‘‘We’re all in this world to-
gether, and we’re stronger together.’’ Stayers also more often
placed an emphasis on strength and not giving up than leavers
did. One stayer explained, ‘‘You have to be so strong-minded to
Percentage of Leavers’ and Stayers’ Interviews Coded for Each Category in Study 2
CodeSample responses Leavers (%)Stayers (%)
Reference to family
Attachment to home
I always try to be with my family during emergencies.
We had savings that could help us to evacuate. A lot of people don’t have
For the government to treat people different by class and race is a disgrace in
Attention to race or class
Themes significantly more common among leavers than among stayers
Emphasis on choicenn
You’ve got to make choices and it’s hard . . . . I’m stuck with a decision here or
there. ’Cause I made a decision.
After experiencing Hurricane Betsy, I was fearful of what would happen to me.
I didn’t feel like I was safe there.
find someone to stay with.
Being away from home meant that I lost my independence.
Fear of losing independencenn
Themes significantly more common among stayers than among leavers
Emphasis on strengthn
Itrynottoletitgetmedown.Ijustletitmakemestronger. . .’causeIhadtotake
care of my two sons.
We had a good community. All the people here help one another.
The hand of God took care of me and that’s why whatever I do, wherever I go,
IjusttrustinGod. . . .Andhavefaithinmyfamily,mydaughter,holdingonto
I was worried and not only for myself, but for a lot of the people.
We thought the storm wasn’t going to come. We really were underestimating the
storm. It always passes through.
Caring for othersn
Connection to othersnnn
Note. For each theme, a chi-square test (df 5 1, N 5 79) was used to test the significance of the difference between the percentages of leavers and stayers whose
interviews were coded as including that theme.
np < .05.nnp < .01.nnnp < .001.
Volume 20—Number 7
N.M. Stephens et al.
survive. You do the best you can do, and if you fail, you get up
again. That’s all you can do.’’ Additionally, stayers more often
adjusted to their limited options by having faith and by actively
much prayers and faith in God, that’s how we made it.’’2
Well-Being and Mental Health
Leavers and stayers did not differ on measures of mental health
(Prime-MD mood, anxiety, and alcohol- and substance-abuse
scales: Spitzer et al., 1994) or well-being (life and self-satis-
faction, positive and negative affect: Watson, Clark, & Tellegen,
1988), all ps > .15. These results suggest that survivors’ diver-
gent responses to Katrina did not reflect differences in well-
being, but rather were conditioned by and appropriate to sur-
Leavers’ and stayers’ divergent ways of making meaning in
Among leavers, the disjoint model’s focus on independence,
choice, and control was likely afforded by the influence-
enabling resources (e.g., money, transportation) that are avail-
able in middle-class White contexts. These resources enabled
people to evacuate. Most stayers, however, lacked these re-
sources and could not effectively enact a disjoint model. In-
stead, they needed to adjust to the constraints of their contexts
by enacting a different model of agency—one that involved
The different models of agency observed in leavers’ and stayers’
narratives were likely reinforced and further amplified by the
experiences of evacuating from or staying in the hurricane-
The agency observed among stayers focused on adjusting the
self to the world and maintaining interdependence with other
people.3Labeling this form of agency will require further
analysis.We suggest thatstayers’ agency reflects some elements
of conjoint agency and that it may also reflect compensatory
secondary control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1999), hard indi-
vidualism (Kusserow, 2004), or emotion-focused coping (Folk-
man & Lazarus, 1980). What is clear is that stayers’ agency
diverged markedly from the disjoint model, the model of agency
that is pervasive in middle-class White contexts and that is the
most well documented in the psychological literature.
meaning making in response to Katrina. With a models-of-
agency analysis, we have gone beyond an analysis of people’s
understandings of why people behave as they do (i.e., attribu-
make sense of behavior and what people perceive as culturally
appropriate action. Our studies demonstrate that although
stayers were agentic (i.e., acting in the world), two different
samples of observers—relief workers and lay observers—der-
ogated stayers as lacking agency. They did so by evaluating
survivors using one particular set of assumptions about the
culturally ‘‘right’’ way to act—a disjoint model of agency.
Observers assumed that disjoint agency—being independent
and in control—was the only right way to act, presumably be-
cause this model was most prevalent in their own middle-class
White contexts. Unlike explicit racism or classism, derogating
people on the basis of one’s own implicit cultural norms may not
be experienced or identified as prejudice, but may insteadseem
like a straightforward logical inference from the facts of the
situation. However, because disjoint agency is often possible
only forpeopleincontextswith an abundance ofresources(e.g.,
middle-class Whites), devaluing other forms of agency may be a
powerful mechanism for prejudice or discrimination against
people in contexts with limited resources (e.g., working-class
Blacks), who lack the resources to be the ‘‘right’’ kind of agent.
Notably, this type of unintended cultural discrimination may be
even more potent and pernicious than traditional forms of
prejudice because it is built into and legitimized by the cultural
fabric of American society and is thus particularly difficult to
recognize (Adams, Biernat, Branscombe, Crandall, & Wrights-
man, 2008; Fryberg, Markus, Oyserman, & Stone, 2008).
Like all models of agency,the disjoint modelis promoted by a
context arranged in specific ways. However, the disjoint model
in particular fosters a form of double blindness that limits in-
dividuals’ ability to understand people in different cultural
contexts. First, with respect to the self, the basic tenet of the
model—that actions derive from within the individual—can
actions are indeed contextually afforded, thereby hindering
their ability to acknowledge other sensible ways to be a person.
Second, with respect to other people, the disjoint model can
conceal the relationship between others’ actions and the re-
source structure of the environment. Notably, understanding
survivors’ actions requires realizing that what can be done is
2Despite limitations of using race and social class as predictors, we tested
whether these social distinctions could account for additional variation in
survivors’ models of agency. We created a dependent measure of agency by
subtracting the sum of indicators of disjoint agency (emphasis on choice, as-
sessing risk, future focus, and fear of losing independence) from the sum of
indicators of conjoint agency (emphasis on strength, caring for others, having
faith, and connection to others). A two-way analysis of variance revealed main
effects of survivor group (stayer vs. leaver), F(1, 51) 5 14.54, p < .001, and of
race and class (working-class Black vs. middle-class White), F(1, 51) 5 4.15,
p < .05, but no interactions. Narratives of leavers and of middle-class Whites
contained more indicators of disjoint agency than narratives of stayers and of
working-class Blacks, respectively. These findings support the claim that
models of agency are associated with social experiences attached to race and
3Although stayers lacked material resources, their focus on interdependence
with others suggests that they were not without social resources (e.g., family,
community), as is often the case in extreme poverty (Steele & Sherman, 1999).
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Perspectives of Katrina Observers and Survivors
contingent on the resources that people have available to them
(e.g., leavers were able to plan, stayers were able to maintain
how people make sense of others’ behavior outside of middle-
class White contexts and should explore the specific content
of the resulting prejudices (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007).
In contexts where the conjoint model is more prevalent, are
people more likely to empathize with others and less likely
to engage in victim blaming? Our sample did not include
enough working-class or Black observers for us to address this
question. Nevertheless, we predict that these groups would be
more likely to view stayers using a conjoint model of agency
and thus less likely to blame them for negative outcomes. For
example, in East Asian and Asian American contexts, the
conjoint model is prevalent, and people more readily explain
other people’s actions by referring to situations and past ex-
periences (Choi & Nisbett, 1998; Cohen, Hoshino-Browne, &
model of agency, this question framed the American public’s
initial response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy and implied
that survivors were ‘‘free’’ agents who were unconstrained by
their contexts. The studies presented here, however, demon-
strate that survivors’ agency was powerfully shaped by the
resource structure of their environments. If relief efforts are
intended to help as many people as possible, questions about
choice, which locate agency as the private property of indi-
vidual actors, are the wrong place to start. Rather than ask why
stayers made bad ‘‘choices’’ or inquire what was wrong with
stayers, relief workers should perhaps have asked, ‘‘What
actions were possible in the resource-limited contexts of
stayers?’’ This alternate question acknowledges that all action
is—and should be understood as—a product of what the in-
dividual can do given the resources of the sociocultural con-
text. Understanding that many people who stayed in the
hurricane-affected area could not simply choose to evacuate
could have promoted a more timely and effective disaster-
prevention and relief effort.
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(RECEIVED 6/20/08; REVISION ACCEPTED 11/25/08)
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