The preparedness paradox is the proposition that if a society or individual acts effectively to mitigate a potential disaster such as a pandemic, natural disaster or other catastrophe so that it causes less harm, the avoided danger will be perceived as having been much less serious because of the limited damage actually caused. The paradox is the incorrect perception that there had been no need for careful preparation as there was little harm, although in reality the limitation of the harm was due to preparation. Several cognitive biases can consequently hamper proper preparation for future risks.
The term "preparedness paradox" has been used occasionally since at least 1949 in different contexts, usually in the military and financial system. The term regained traction in reference to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the overall government response worldwide.
Another notable citation of the term was in 2017 by Roland Berger regarding executives in the aerospace and defense industry: almost two thirds of those surveyed reported that they were well-prepared for geopolitical changes, about which they could do nothing, while feeling unprepared in areas such as changes in technology and innovation, to which they should be much more able to respond. In contrast, other surveys found that boards and financial professionals were increasingly concerned about geopolitical risk. Berger concluded that there was an urgent need for more and better business strategies throughout industry to close this gap in preparedness.
Organisms with faster life histories and shorter lives are disproportionately affected by chaotic or hostile environments. These types of organisms innately have a greater fear of environmental disasters or emergencies. However, organisms with slower life histories, such as humans, may have less urgency in dealing with these types of events. Instead, they have more time and ability to prepare for such emergencies.
Cognitive biases play a large role in the lack of urgency in preparation, hampering efforts to prevent disasters. These include over-optimism, in which the degree of disaster is underestimated, and the fact that many disasters do not reach their breaking point until it is too late to take action. In over-optimism and normalcy bias, people believe that disasters will happen elsewhere, and even if they do happen locally only their neighbors will be affected.
Another obstacle to preparedness is the interval between disasters. When there is a long time between disasters, there is less urgency to prepare. This is due to fewer people remembering the last disaster, which reduces its emotional impact on the group. This effect is heightened when some measure of action is taken to prevent the disaster, which further reduces the memory of the original danger and consequences.
Financial concerns can also contribute to the preparedness paradox. There is a tendency to over-value known short-term costs, as well as to under-value unknown long-term rewards. The fact that preparing for disasters is expensive in the short term and its value in the long term cannot be determined could lead to catastrophic consequences if the choice is made to not prepare.
Levees are structures which run parallel to rivers and are meant to offer protection from flooding. The long-term safety afforded by them can lead to the misperception that an area protected by them is "flood free", leading to unsafe land development in the floodplain. 
Preparing for a pandemic is an example of the preparedness paradox. If sufficient investment in preparation meant that a small outbreak could be identified and contained before it could spread, then no mass deaths or economic failure would occur as a result, and there would no clear evidence that the preparation had been warranted.
Historical perspective can also contribute to the preparedness paradox. From the point of view of historians after the Year 2000 problem, the preventative action taken has been described as an "overreaction", instead of a successful effort to prepare for an upcoming problem.
- Kayyem, Juliette (March 31, 2022). "'The Devil Never Sleeps' makes the case for disaster preparedness in a changing world". Morning Edition (Interview). Interviewed by Steve Inskeep. NPR.
- Easement for Construction of Toll Crossing of San Francisco Bay: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, Eighty-first Congress, First Session on S. 1390 ... July 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12, 1949. 1949. p. 79.
General Bradley | There is a preparedness paradox that continually confronts military planners. On one had, we are constantly aware of the tremendous expense of military preparedness ... if we spend more annually than we can afford, we could let our expenditures for preparedness lead us into bankruptcy ... On the other hand, the tremendous expense ... is necessary if we are to have the Army ready for the performance of the missions we have been assigned.
- Ruggiero, Aino; Vos, Marita (September 29, 2014). "Communication Challenges in CBRN Terrorism Crises: Expert Perceptions". Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. 23 (3): 138–148. doi:10.1111/1468-5973.12065. ISSN 0966-0879.
A preparedness paradox exists. On the one hand, to prepare the public to be able to act [in a CBRN terrorism crisis] ... On the other hand, lack of trust in and underestimation of the abilities of the public to act ...
- Berger, Roland. The preparedness paradox: our respondents felt confident regarding situations over which they have little control (Report). Think:Act - Roland Berger Aerospace & Defense Top Management Issues Radar 2017. pp. 3, 15.
- "The pandemic preparedness paradox". PMLive. January 21, 2021. Retrieved July 18, 2022.
- "The Paradox of Preparation". kottke.org. Retrieved August 7, 2022.
- Kruger, Daniel J.; Fernandes, Heitor B. F.; Cupal, Suzanne; Homish, Gregory G. (2019). "Life history variation and the preparedness paradox". Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. 13 (3): 242–253. doi:10.1037/ebs0000129. S2CID 134346051.
- Meyer, Robert; Kunreuther, Howard (2017). The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters. Wharton School Press. ISBN 978-1613630808.
- Reder, Jake; Doyle Cooper, Colleen (January 21, 2021). "The pandemic preparedness paradox". PM Live.
- Gissing, Andrew; Van Leeuwen, Jonathan; Tofa, Matalena; Haynes, Katharine (July 2018). "Flood levee influences on community preparedness: a paradox?". Australian Journal of Emergency Management. 33 (3): 38–43.