Understanding how human populations naturally respond to and cope with risk is important for fields ranging from psychology to public health. We used geophysical and individual-level mobile-phone data (mobile-apps, telecommunications, and Web usage) of 157,358 victims of the 2013 Ya’an earthquake to diagnose the effects of the disaster and investigate how experiencing real risk (at different levels of intensity) changes behavior. Rather than limiting human activity, higher earthquake intensity resulted in graded increases in usage of communications apps (e.g., social networking, messaging), functional apps (e.g., informational tools), and hedonic apps (e.g., music, videos, games). Combining mobile data with a field survey (N = 2,000) completed 1 week after the earthquake, we use an instrumental-variable approach to show that only increases in hedonic behavior reduced perceived risk. Thus, hedonic behavior could potentially serve as a population-scale coping and recovery strategy that is often missing in risk management and policy considerations.