Experiment in Crisis Sense-Making

Using a modification of a simulation developed recently by the Justice Institute of British Columbia, we are conducting experiments to explore processes of sense-making and decision-making of individuals and groups in crisis situations. The initial experiments involve two treatment groups: 1) individuals acting as either internal agency communication experts whose role is just to report to headquarters on “what is going on” without taking any other actions but acting only as passive observers; 2) individuals acting as directors of Emergency Operation Centres (EOC), who because of the emergency situation find themselves in a position of fulfilling multiple roles in the EOC and are required to prioritize and coordinate actions by different groups of first responders, and allocate resources. They face rapidly changing conditions, ongoing reports from the field, media reports, and demands from variety of agencies and individuals etc.

The scenarios include evolving severe weather events in the winter. The experimental conditions include increases in activity levels, in urgency of demands to respond (and thus, stress level), increases in ambiguity in information received, changes in salience of events, and sense-giving interventions (from external sources with different level of perceived authority and expertise).

A second series of the experiments will address sense-making in small groups. Experiments will include predetermined alternative organization structures as well as situations where organizational structures emerge spontaneously. Both series of studies will explore a variety of personality traits and other psychological variables on sense-making processes and the resilience of such processes in situations involving various degrees of surprise, stress, and ambiguities.

A future set of experiment is also being designed to explore sense-making processes in crisis situations that present challenging ethical dilemmas.

Project Members:

Dr. Ilan Vertinsky
Vinod Sood Professor of International Business Studies
Sauder School of Business
University of British Columbia


ward_lawrenceDr. Lawrence Ward
Department of Psychology
University of British Columbia


Lily Yumagulova
School of Community and Regional Planning
University of British Columbia