The Unthinkable

Posted on September 08, 2009 by Steve

How would you behave in a disaster? Do you have what it takes to survive a life-threatening situation? Amanda Ripley provides some surprising clues in The Unthinkable.

First of all, you probably wouldn't panic. Most people don't, contrary to common expectation and typical media coverage of disasters. Instead, they often freeze, struggling to comprehend and rationalize an abnormal situation, reluctant to recognize the risk. Survivors who left the doomed World Trace Center reported waiting an average of six minutes before heading downstairs. One, Elia Zedeņo, described walking in circles in her workspace looking for something to bring, finally grabbing a mystery novel. At the Beverly Hills Supper Club, where 165 people died in a 1977 fire, six victims were found seated around a dinner table. One man took the time to order a rum and Coke to go.

Even when people start trying to escape danger, rushing and hysteria are rare. People are more courteous than usual, helping strangers and waiting for one another. They form groups, look for a leader, and resist discord. Stories of strangely normal behavior on the Titanic were not exceptional -- a survivor from the Estonia reported that many people did nothing to save themselves.

The best way to improve your odds of surviving a disaster is by advance preparation. Anticipate that your brain won't be as reliable when your life is on the line. In the words of a wartime bomber pilot, "When you walk across the ramp to your airplane, you lose half your IQ." Have a plan, and know where stairways and emergency exits are. It's no surprise that people with military experience, trained to move quickly in response to sudden adversity, are better survivors.

One curiosity in the book is a line of thought I've seen elsewhere -- an interest in finding an evolutionary explanation for a behavior that does not enhance one's survival, heroism in this case. Despite great risk to themselves and having no family members at risk, Walter Bailey repeatedly entered a burning building, Roger Olian braved the freezing Potomac, and Rick Rescorla marched back up into a flaming skyscraper. Pundits suggest that there is a hidden self-interest at work, that the risk-takers hope to benefit from being perceived as heroes. Olian, in typical heroic fasion, denied that he did anything special, just that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he had done nothing. As for benefit, he got hypothermia, then had to retrieve his towed truck from a D.C. impound lot the next day, paying for it with bills that were still wet in his wallet. Isn't it simpler to suppose that we have adaptive tendencies (say, for assisting those around us) but they don't always lead to adaptive behavior? No one seems determined to find an evolutionary explanation for other relatively rare behaviors that diminish one's chances of reproducing, like suicide, cellibacy, hang-gliding, or homosexuality.

Ripley presents a condensed version of her subject in a Top 10 list, and in a recent article reiterates the need to prepare and equip the real first responders to emergenices: regular people.
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