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.