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Book Review: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why (Amanda Ripley)

“The Unthinkable” is basically a self-improvement manual. But the promised self-improvement isn’t better organization, inner peace or higher task efficiency; rather it is increased odds of living through a disaster. And while the book accomplishes the goal of self-help for the attentive reader, even more it shows that who lives and who dies mostly results from characteristics of the individual. Many of these are innate and wholly unchangeable, such as sex, intelligence and ability to absorb stress, each of which is a critical factor in survival. Some are merely extremely difficult to change and in practice immutable for the individual, such as culture and education. Few are easy to change—but any bit helps, I suppose.

You can boil down the survival advice in this book to three principles. First, by default, ignore anything those in charge say during a disaster, especially any instructions they give you. Second, and related, “Above all, it is essential to take the initiative—to remember that you and your neighbors must save yourselves.” Third, maximizing your self-confidence and perceiving yourself as the captain of your fate, if you can, hugely increase your chances of survival. All of these accord with common sense, but the book goes into the whys and wherefores in an interesting and informative manner.

The author, Amanda Ripley, examines the responses of individuals (and groups, as collections of individuals) through the prism of numerous modern disasters, both natural and man-made. These range from the Halifax explosion of 1917 through the modern day. She divides all responses into three sequential broad reactions, what she calls “the survival arc”: “Denial,” “Deliberation,” and “The Decisive Moment,” and arranges her book accordingly (though noting that the dividing lines between stages are not always crisp).

Ripley begins with “Denial.” Using numerous examples, including September 11th, she shows how rather than panicking as you see in the movies, the usual immediate response to a disaster is neither panic nor freezing, but cool lethargy. People ignore the problem or delay addressing it in any way with strategies such as laughter, or collecting their wholly unnecessary belongings. Ripley ascribes this to normalcy bias—the belief that, in essence, since we look for patterns to understand our live, and a disaster is not part of our usual pattern, “this can’t be happening to me—things like this happen to other people.” This is buttressed by peer pressure—we “risk social embarrassment by overreacting. So we err on the side of underreacting.” As a result, while we are in denial, we seek information to fit what is happening into a pattern. We ignore alarms and instructions, if any, and turn to each other to talk—what Ripley calls the “milling ritual.” All of these behaviors, of course, imply that people of an independent cast of mind are more likely to pass through the denial phase quickly (or ideally skip it entirely), which is necessary for survival.

As the situation deteriorates, individuals tend to “dissociate.” They behave mechanically, and usually in an orderly, but not insightful or thoughtful, fashion. They focus intensely on their immediate surroundings, yet may not notice critical data right around them (even sometimes becoming temporarily blind or deaf), and they may think thoughts that make no sense, trying to explain what’s happening or what caused the problems they face. Again, moving past this is necessary for the individual to survive.

Next Ripley turns to “Deliberation.” Denial is over (though for some deliberation never happens, and denial morphs into paralysis, a possible outcome of the third, decisive, stage). Here, “we know something is terribly wrong, but we don’t know what to do about it.” And our ability to deliberate is both enhanced and crippled by the situation. Everyone’s first reaction after realizing, or admitting, that there is a Big Problem, is fear. The physical impact varies by person, but there is always some significant physical impact, especially regarding emotion, sensing ability (e.g., tunnel vision, time perception), and fine motor function. In addition, those in the grip of fear tend to focus too much on one thing, sometimes unimportant, to the exclusion of other things, sometimes much more important, as when a plane with a warning light crashes because nobody paid attention to the dropping altitude. But “we can learn from experience”; we can train our subconscious, to an extent. Any preparation, like memorizing where the emergency exits are when you enter a place, can help reduce the negative impacts of the fear response. Hence the emphasis nowadays placed in the military and martial arts on realistic training exercises, as well as on surprisingly effective simple exercises such as controlled breathing.

What determines survival and passing successfully through in this second phase is also the individual’s resilience—who can overcome the fear and take relevant action. Who will be resilient is not easy to predict (though fat people are generally not resilient, according to Ripley, which makes sense since fat people by definition often lack discipline, which seems related to resilience, though Ripley ascribes it more to physical limitations). Even more un-PC, Ripley notes that the most resilient group, by far, is a subset of white men. Not because of any racial factor (though there is a sex factor—women react radically different than men both in the amount of fear and resilience, worse on both factors), but rather that this subset “liked the world of status, hierarchy and power.” In other words, they saw themselves as in control, and acted like it, rather than being victims of circumstance, they bore up in the face of danger. Ripley tries to soften this conclusion by throwing up chaff about the effects of money differences and physical strength differences, but the conclusion is clear.

Ripley generalizes the research on resilience to “People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil [i.e., religious people]; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. . . . Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.” In other words, those who view themselves as victims, and are atheists, are the least resilient. I suppose that means liberals probably die at higher rates in disasters. That would be an interesting study. In addition, confidence helps reduce fear—in fact, “people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters.” These, in other words, are the “arrogant.” They live. And when they live, and others also live, the arrogant are much better adjusted than other survivors. Finally, people with higher IQ are more resilient, though why is unclear, maybe because IQ is correlated with success, which is correlated with self-confidence.

Yes, you can train yourself to a certain degree. But mostly, these things are innate, or at least fixed, in adults. Special Forces soldiers tend to have higher levels of “neuropeptide Y,” which apparently helps focus under stress, and they tend to dissociate much less than other people. Not because of training—you can tell in advance which soldiers are more likely to pass the Special Forces tests, using blood and psychological tests for dissociation. And, twin studies show resilience is a biological reality, mostly set from birth—although, again, Ripley tries to soften this necessary and un-PC conclusion with some shiny but empty words about the theoretical impacts of “nurture.”

Finally, deliberation can be strongly negatively affected by the human tendency toward groupthink—prioritizing group harmony. This has some benefits—people are amazingly polite and helpful to others in the vast majority of disasters. But then they do nothing except what they normally do, and they even maintain hierarchies that no longer have any relevance and may be actually pernicious. Ultimately, this tends to create fatal inertia. (Again, men are less inclined to this effect than women—for example, women hesitate much longer than men to jump onto airplane escape slides.) Those who survive are those who are independent and don’t care what others think. If you follow others, as most tend to do, you die. The anarchist, the solipsist, the sociopath—they live. And if they choose, they can make others follow, since the herd-like group tends to imitate anyone seen as a confident, resilient leader. If you want others to live, you yell orders at them, preferably well-laced with obscenities. Apparently this is now what flight attendants are trained to do (without the obscenities), rather than gently guiding people. But no matter what you do, some people will not follow—they may still be in denial, or they may be frozen (more on which below).

Finally Ripley addresses “The Decisive Moment.” Here, we take action (or freeze). “What happens once we have accepted the fact that something terrible is upon us and deliberated our options?” In the best case scenario, we take action in a fairly rational, effective fashion. Making a plan is very valuable, so those with plan-based training, typically military people, do better. At the extreme of those who act are heroes, who take highly dangerous action to save others. Here, again, those with high self-confidence, those who “believe they shape their own destinies,” are more likely to take action and more likely to be heroes. As to heroes, the vast majority are men, probably, according to Ripley, because they “believe they are not only capable of heroics but that such behavior is expected of them.” Working-class men are much more likely to be heroes than men with high-status jobs. Unsurprisingly, those with a strong sense of duty to help others and a desire not to see themselves as cowards are more likely to be heroes; many of these are religious.

If we fail to take action, we panic or freeze. Rarely (surprisingly rarely), people panic. Usually, this only occurs when three conditions are met: people feel trapped; they feel totally helpless; and they feel isolated (even if in a crowd). Then people panic, which is mostly a form of overreaction. For example, numerous examples exist of experienced scuba divers ripping out their air supply deep underwater—an overreaction, a fatal one, to feeling unable to breathe. And, generally, those with higher “trait anxiety,” a higher general tendency to see things as stressful, are more likely to panic. As with soldiers, you can predict with high accuracy in advance, based on biology, which people will panic.

But panic is the exception. A more common counterproductive reaction is paralysis. “The decisive moment arrive, and they do nothing.” Generally speaking, the less fear a person experiences, the less likely he is to freeze. Self-control is everything. (Although she doesn’t, Ripley could have quoted and recommended the chant of Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” trained to repeat to himself: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”) To bring oneself out of paralysis, or to be brought out, the easiest way is through loud noise (which is, again, why flight attendants are now trained to yell at passengers during evacuations).

My only real criticism of “The Unthinkable” is that is contains entirely too much evolutionary psychology. Every few pages, a direct lines is drawn between some human behavior and some behavior of the animal kingdom. These may be accurate, but it seems a stretch, for example, to analogize human paralysis to chicken paralysis, suggesting that going limp is a good strategy for all animals because predators lose interest. That’s not true for many predators, and although it’s certainly possible that’s why humans have the response, like all evolutionary psychology, it’s merely a sexy-sounding guess. This pop science reaches its nadir when Ripley approvingly quotes an “animal behavior expert” about human heroism, and he responds that since lions never sacrifice themselves for the good of the group, he is skeptical about human heroism, which is “overblown.” OK, then. Ripley adds these element to the book to maintain interest, but she would have been better served by adding less of it.

Finally, an important underlying theme of the book is the stupidity of most government responses to disasters—not to the disasters themselves, but rather to emergency plans for future disasters made in response to past disasters. As she notes, specifically with respect to the 2007 London Tube bombings, “emergency plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency officials, not regular people.” More broadly, the plans made by government or others in charge tend to assume that regular people are helpless and panic-prone, and must be guided by their betters and superiors. (In this, of course, government planning for disasters is no different than other modern government planning.) Ripley also attacks those charged with protecting us for lack of trust in those protected, which tends to distort (even more than is usual for everyone) perceptions of risk, since without adequate information people make poor evaluations of risk, and therefore necessarily poorer decisions. The lesson, of course, is to by default ignore anything those in charge say during a disaster.

In any case, if you read this book and think about it for a while, you will probably increase your chances of not dying in a disaster. And that’s probably an investment worth making.

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