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The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

March 4, 2010 by  

Each of us secretly hopes that, should we find ourselves facing a disaster, we would respond nobly if not heroically. And we certainly hope that we would never just freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights—or worse, panic.

But how we respond to crisis may be hardwired into our brain’s circuitry long before we’re confronted with a disaster situation. And while practice or preparation can help us to respond properly, we may have little actual control over what we do in a disaster.

That’s the conclusion of Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable, which has a subtitle: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why?

Ripley, an award-winning journalist for Time magazine, has covered some the world’s biggest disasters over the course of her career. In this book she retraces some of history’s biggest calamities—from the 1917 explosion of the munitions ship Mont Blanc, to plane crashes, calamitous fires, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, hostage situations and mass shootings—and studies people’s responses in an effort to find out why some survive the seemingly unsurvivable while others perish in situations where survival should have been assured.

She interviews the survivors to learn how they made it out, the rescuers to learn how the victims were responding, and the heroes to learn what made them different. What she learned could help you understand your response should you ever be confronted with a disaster situation.

Ripley determined that most people did not respond the way they thought they would. Whether they froze, panicked or led, many people were, in retrospect, surprised by their actions.

Her research showed that the human mind goes through three basic steps when confronted with a crisis. The steps are denial, deliberation and decision.

During the denial stage, it’s not unusual for people to continue performing mundane tasks while chaos reins around them. During this stage the brain is processing information, delaying its decision-making process and assessing the risk. But because the event is so unlike anything ever experienced before, the brain has trouble putting the situation into perspective.

From her interviews with 9/11 survivors she learned that even after hearing what had actually happened in the Twin Towers and that there was a need to get out quickly, many workers continued to talk on the telephone, put away items on their desks, gather personal effects and mill about in casual conversation.

Often it took someone shouting or speaking in a rude or demanding voice to spur people into action. Still, many assessed the risk and determined it was better to stay put than to flee.

In the deliberation phase the mind begins to put together possible courses of action. It’s not unusual for people to describe this period as having time almost stand still. They remember in great detail words or images that would not normally be significant.

It’s in this stage that training or practice can step in and influence one’s behavior, affecting the response in the third stage, the decisive moment. Some overcome their fear and take the steps necessary to escape and some help those around them.

Ripley breaks down the decisive moment into panic, paralysis or heroism.

Panic takes many forms, none of them good, and rarely is panic productive. Some see paralysis as a form of panic, but Ripley writes that researchers have concluded that paralysis is an escape mechanism that is instinctive in many animals, and humans.

For instance, a prey animal being attacked by a predator may go limp, causing the predator to lose interest before inflicting a mortal injury. Humans have used it—though it is often an unconscious action, like when a killer is shooting people at random—to remain inconspicuous and out of harm’s way.

But Ripley writes that that instinctive action often works against people in today’s society. Remaining motionless in a situation where flight is needed to save you is deadly, and has cost many people their lives in plane crashes and other situations where there was ample time to escape and doing nothing was not a rational option.

Finally, there is heroism. A relatively small number of people step into this role and fewer still know why. When asked why they responded to the crisis with heroic actions they generally respond that if they hadn’t responded that way they wouldn’t have been able to live with themselves, Ripley writes.

And they don’t think of their actions as heroic. They think of them as simply doing what needed to be done.

Ripley’s The Unthinkable is a fascinating compilation of event descriptions, interviews and research that both entertains and informs. It can help you to make sense of the actions of those around you should you suddenly find yourself facing the unthinkable.

Bob Livingston

is an ultra-conservative American and author of The Bob Livingston Letter™, founded in 1969. Bob has devoted much of his life to research and the quest for truth on a variety of subjects. Bob specializes in health issues such as nutritional supplements and alternatives to drugs, as well as issues of privacy (both personal and financial), asset protection and the preservation of freedom.

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  • http://victorbarney@embarqmail.com Victor L Barney

    Great information! Especially when the Marxist-led economic collapse soon occurs, probably October, but maybe, even in June this year? Hopefully, I’ll make Yahweh proud and fight, not flight!

    • Dan2

      Hello Victor. Can you take a moment and give me some of your reasoning as to your thinking, of your time frame? I keep hear diffferent probables leading to collapse.
      Thanks.

      • SiliconDoc

        In any case, those who warned of a global breakdown (the recent one we just had) were mocked and laughed at, belittled, and were told they were insane.
        Now I’ve seen two of them, both quite famous, praised and apologized to by those who mocked them for a few years.
        They are predicting more problems, I suppose the commercial ARM real estate loans coming due mid year or a bit later, coupled with the blown up after weakened, stretched, and spittled into balloon…
        The question is, how do the powers that be react then, and do they actually do something to start repair work, or are they merely placing gauze and wraps and sewing the gaping wounds up – only to send the daredevil fake world monetary debt economy back out to crash again ?
        When unmeetable claims and illusory promisary contracts are jumbled up in one giant speculative gambling spree that creates excessive capital in detailed digital derangement producing nothing but expansion of national money supplies that the extravagant gamblers take away as earnings in a giant “hidden tax cloud” by private complicated computer modeled means – and their charade breaks down at a base level and exposes the trillions of fluff as flat out unfulfillable lies, and “profit taking” nose dives as the trillions in lies evaporate and destroy enforced ordered stability – what will they do ?
        I believe the answer is create and even greater lying demonic beast of higher complexity with more lies and wretchedness than before, and candy up a new theoretical construct to deliver to the eager mouths and ears of the desirous and happily deceived elite.
        Isn’t that what they’ve already done in the 1st round ?
        Why yes it is.
        A big “save” with the depths of depravity and deception we only hear and see glimpses of with the massive secrecy and propaganda and cannot even begin to fathom how sick and criminal it really is.
        The few that made warning are not being listened to, nor their instructions for repair heeded one iota.
        It certainly seems excessive to claim the sky is falling, but then didn’t they already prop it up… and fix nothing, and break more ?

  • eddie47d

    Victor has no reasoning. His extremist comments are always the same. He hopes for disaster and doom so he can mentally be the hero and pick up the pieces. If you have read his rantings in the past he blames everything on someone else and believes they should die. We can say he is consistent.

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