I was at a pizza joint in Lincoln, Neb., when a woman ran up to the bar and announced that the National Weather Service had just issued a tornado warning. It was mid-tornado season and I followed her out the front door (in retrospect, maybe not the best plan) where I could hear a loud siren. The sky was dark and ominous.

I headed back inside and into the basement for shelter. I was the only person doing that and was feeling self-conscious. I called my husband. “I’m either the idiot from out of town, or the sole survivor,” I told him.

Severe weather warnings are intended to get people out of harm’s way, but as was clear that day in May, responses to these alerts can vary widely. And why that is interests researchers. Whether people immediately take protective measures, seek more evidence that the danger is imminent or simply wait and watch depends on a variety of factors, and understanding them can make severe weather warnings more effective and, hopefully, save lives.

Tornado warnings are just one kind of alert — the National Weather Service also issues warnings about hurricanes, storm surges, severe thunderstorms, floods, extreme winds, winter storms and numerous other types of severe weather. A warning is effective if it motivates people to take a course of action that will protect them from harm, says Robert Drost, a geoscientist at Michigan State University.

“For the most part, people don’t disregard weather warnings,” says Julie Demuth, who studies risk communication at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “But that doesn’t mean they’re always going to do what we want them to do.”

Social cues can be influential, Demuth says. If you look around and see your neighbors evacuating in reaction to a hurricane warning, you might think about getting out too. But if you’re in a restaurant where no one else is seeking shelter, you might feel self-conscious about heading to the basement...

Research has shown that people who are unfamiliar with a particular weather event tend to be more cautious (and more likely to take protective action in response to an alert) compared with people who are familiar with it, says Susan Joslyn, a psychologist who studies decision-making at the University of Washington. I was especially terrified of the tornado in Lincoln because I’d never experienced a tornado alert before. And some research has found that women were more likely than men to evacuate in a hurricane.

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