Thursday, November 12, 2009


I read a book that opened my mind recently. It is probably not on the best seller lists (is #53,525 rank in Amazon a best seller?). It is called The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes – and why.

This book examines the human response to fear in crisis situations and is presented in a very easy to read, non-scientific, yet analytical way.

The book is structured around the three phases of fear that people pass through – denial, deliberation, action.

Author Amanda Ripley weaves a story linking known human responses to evolutionary psychology. For example, the paralysis some people feel during fear is explained by people searching for a subconscious response. The less familiar people are with their environment, the longer it might take to finish searching for a learned response and start being able to think rationally again.

Ripley tells the tale of a school shooting survivor who ‘played dead’ on the ground and was the only one in the classroom not be killed that day.  I was shocked, because I had often thought playing dead might be a great way to survive a crazed shooting spree.

While I probably won’t do the book justice, I want to try and summarise some of the main points that stuck in my mind.

1.  If you are going to rescue a drowning person, you should yell and scream at them as you approach. Many rescuers are themselves dragged into the water by troubled swimmers desperately grabbing at them. You need to get their attention - swearing and threatening not to save them if they touch you is the recommended approach – and by doing so, you lead them into an obedient state of fear. Which leads me to my next point.

2.  People are mostly very obedient in a state of fear. If they do not have a plan of action that they are confident about, they will latch on to any suggestions by others. In many situations, people have been observed evacuating buildings like obedient lemmings.

3.  People are on the whole fairly calm in an emergency situation. In some cases it is due to denial, some cases due to paralysis of fear (their mind is whizzing away but can’t find a pre-programmed response to the emergency)

4.  People who undertake heroic actions, risking their own lives for others, generally do not make a conscious rational decision. They often say that images of their families pop into their mind, and the thought of facing them knowing they cowardly watched people dying springs them into action. Although some reference to evolutionary psychology is made, as males with no children are by far the greatest heroes.

5.  Overconfident people, who are a pain in the backside during normal times, are far more likely to survive a disaster. This is simply due to their ability to breeze through the denial stage and make a decision, no matter how poor, and follow it through with confidence (this reminds me of advice by Bear Grylls – that the secret to survival when stranded in the wilderness is to have a plan and act on it, rather than waste time thinking about it).

6.  The victims of disaster are play the key role in determining the survival rate.  First response teams such as fire fighter and medics generally arrive too late to make a major difference.

What makes this book so interesting is that the explanation of the human response to fear actually provides a solid theory for why different survival rates are seen in different disasters. For example, QUT researcher David Savage has statistically examined determinants of survival on the Titanic, and found that social behaviour, herding, and following the orders of dominant people probably led to high rates of survival for women and children. But in his study of another maritime sinking found that young fit male staff had the greatest survival chance. This boat sank in a mere 8 minutes.

Ripley’s explanation would be comprise a number of factors

a)  there was no time for a group leader to emerge
b)  in the absence of leadership, many people where struck by paralysis of fear
c)  those with the most confidence, maritime experience, and physical fitness got through the denial and deliberation stages much faster
d)  any hero behaviour may have not been successful

I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who has wondered how they might react in a crisis, a natural disaster, or fire. It should be compulsory reading for legislators who deal with emergency plans, and for anyone involved in the first response team – the medics, firemen, police, and rescue teams.

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