This book is an investigative journalistic look at the psychology of survival. Ripley cites three stages of reaction to calamity—disbelief or denial, deliberation, and decisive action. It’s divided into three parts that cover these facets of behavior. If you’re fascinated by what makes people do what they do, then buy The Unthinkable: WhoSurvives When Disaster Strikes – And Why.
Ripley examines how we respond to disasters and danger. For example, what makes people behave as they do in a fire or plane crash? Why do events seem to slow down as if we’re seeing them in slow motion when we’re in the midst of a life threatening incident? What happens to the brain? What happens to our blood chemistry?
You might expect people to panic during disasters. That would seem to be the normal reaction, even though panic is really an overreaction to real or perceived danger. But believe it or not, people will do nothing more often than panic when danger threatens.
Stranger still, there are times when paralysis can be a life saver. That was the case for one young man who played dead during the Virginia Tech shooting a few years ago.
On the other hand, we often hear stories of heroic individuals who save many lives in a disaster. Why is it that some people are heroes, while the rest of us freeze up?
The common reaction of doing nothing is illustrated when people don’t evacuate before the arrival of a hurricane. Many times we tend to trust our own experiences rather than official warnings.
How can we wisely discern which threats are serious and which are not? We need to understand what goes on inside our heads if we’re to do what will keep us alive.
Though we may think of ourselves as individuals who act according to our own will, we give into the herd instinct during immediate disasters. People tend to stick together in groups and need to be prodded into action. For example, passengers would evacuate faster from a crashed plane if a flight attendant stood by the exit and told them to jump down the evacuation slide.
Ripley describes what happened when a fire broke out at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in the Cincinnati area in 1977. Most people did nothing.
The simple take-charge actions of a bus boy saved hundreds of lives. He told one group to follow him outdoors, and they did. He pointed out the exits to another group and told them to leave because there was a fire.
In a large crowd, such as those at pilgrimages to Mecca, panic begins because of the physics of the crowd, not just its psychology. That’s due in part to the fact that each of us needs a certain amount of space around us. But a crowd can behave like an ocean wave, moving people this way and that. Once there’s a disturbance of some kind, it’s impossible to stop the chain reaction.
What about warnings meant for the public’s benefit? Today we have more and more pronouncements about everything from oncoming hurricanes to safety labels telling us not to use a toaster in the bathtub. Are these meant to stir action motivated by fear?
Officials don’t want people to panic, do they? Are the many warnings we hear meant to quench panic? If so, are they informative and reasonable enough to do what they’re meant to do?
Do authorities think we’re too stupid to act on our own? If they don’t have faith in us, why should we have faith in them and their pronouncements? Do public threat warnings actually undermine their effectiveness by causing us to mistrust authorities and their warnings? Official policies based on inaccurate assumptions can put people in danger.
How important or useful are drills, such as fire drills or tsunami drills? In such situations, do we get adequate and helpful information? What could be done to make things better?
Ripley suggests doing your own drills. For example, if you work in a multistory building, take the steps now and then, rather than the elevator, to get familiar with the route. Also, as dull as it sounds, when you’re flying, read the flight safety information card. Familiarization is an important component of preparedness.
Ripley explores these topics and more in The Unthinkable: WhoSurvives When Disaster Strikes – And Why. To order your copy, click on the title of the book wherever you see it linked in this post. A new window will open to the page where it’s featured. Place your order from there.
If you want to explore this area of study further, you might also like The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life and Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.