10 Big Ideas: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

Posted in 10 Big Ideas


Author’s note: Why is an arts business expert writing about disaster survival?  Besides being an informative and intriguing read that I think can save lives, I saw a lot of similarities between what happens to disaster survivors and the tribulations that business owners frequently face.  What kills many in disasters is lack of preparedness, mental paralysis when faced with extreme fear, and inability to recover from the inevitable set-backs.  Substitute the phrase ‘business challenges’ for the word ‘disasters’ and you’ll see what I mean.

1. “They” can’t help you—at least not at first

In disasters of all types, the vast majority of rescues are done by ordinary folks well before first responders such as police, fire fighters, or medical teams have time to arrive.  Also, emergency response resources can easily be overwhelmed by a disaster.  The bigger the disaster, the longer you’ll be on your own.

You are responsible for your own survival.  A study of 20 years of serious airplane accidents found 56% of passengers survived, and their own behavior was a large determinant of their survival.  An Indian proverb, once quoted by Hunter S. Thompson, says it best: “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.”

2. The best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is frequent realistic practice

Your brain is a pattern matching machine.  A disaster can quickly overwhelm your brain unless it has a pattern to quickly match to.  In the absence of training, the brain often chooses from unhelpful behaviors  like denial, procrastination, laughter, silence, milling about, paralysis, and even hallucination-like sensory distortions.  These are reinforced by a lack of preparedness.

A high sense of self-worth and self-esteem—factors that improve your survival odds—can be manufactured through training and experience.  Doing so also makes you rebound more easily.

3. Beware the hazards not reported on the evening news

The government, and by extension the news media, doesn’t do a very good job of keeping citizens informed of hazards in a manner than helps them make realistic risk assessments.  Deaths described as “freak accidents” are sometime very common.  Studies have even shown that reading the news (newspaper) is healthier than watching the news (TV) because you can more effectively filter out the hype from the meaningful data.

Security expert Bruce Schneier goes so far as to advise people, “if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it.”  Worry instead about the events that are so common they don’t make the news, like car crashes or domestic violence or cardiac disease.

4. The dread you feel about something is influenced by 6 factorsmisread them and you’ll likely misjudge the risk

Uncontrollability, unfamiliarity, imaginability, suffering, scale of destruction, and unfairness are the factors that contribute to a sense of dread.  The higher an event scores on each factor, the more likely you are to dread that risk, even if the probability of the risk occurring is very low.  Car crashes kill many more people annually than plane crashes.  Yet people fear plane crashes more because they aren’t the ones driving the plane (uncontrollability), they spend a very small portion of their lives at 20,000 feet (unfamiliarity), they have no problems imagining a crash given the frequency of plane-crash images in movies and in the media, and plane crash sites are more spectacular and spread out (scale of destruction).

The reverse can also be true.  Many of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina did so because they chose not to evacuate.  Having survived the direct hits of Hurricanes Betsy (category 3, 1965) and Camile (category 5, 1969), they had become familiar with hurricanes, dreaded them less, and thus calculated their risk as lower.  What they failed to factor into their risk assessments was that many of the natural wetland barriers that protected the Louisiana coastline from storm surges in the 1960s, had been destroyed in the name of development.  Experience is not always a good teacher.

5. Fear is profound and primitive but negotiable

A little bit of fear can be a good thing.  It sharpens your senses, and prepares your body to fight or flee.  This makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective.  But in cases of extreme fear, stress hormones can function like hallucinogenic drugs, causing people to gain certain powers (like hearing) and lose others.  Most people, even professionals like police officers, experience some kind of altered reality, but few know what to expect beforehand so are completed distracted by the physiological changes they’re experiencing.

Everyone can benefit from some kind of preparation, which will increase their confidence, therefore decreasing their fear and increasing their performance.

6. Emotions trump reason—but that’s not always bad

Emotions—especially fear—are hardwired in unique ways.  There are special neurological pathways that allow parts of the brain to make physiological responses to threatening stimuli  (the ‘flight or flight’ response) without the need for any conscious processing.  When time is of the essence, or when good data aren’t available, this fail-safe mechanism has kept humans alive for millennia.

After studying patients who’d lost emotional responsiveness due to brain injury, neurologist Antonio Damasio concluded that emotions and feelings, the so-called irrational sentiments, are a way to improve, rather than impede, our ability to judge risk.

Let your emotions run free when you can’t get good data.  But when your feelings clash with known facts, try to check yourself.   Just because you feel goofy wearing a bicycle helmet doesn’t mean you should ignore the fact that wearing a helmet improves your safety.

7. Warning people of dangers doesn’t have to panic them

There’s a fine line between getting people’s attention and losing them to a sense of futility, but given reasonable, tangible advice, people can be very receptive.  Warnings work best then they are consistent, easily understood, specific, frequently repeated, personal, accurate, targeted, and tell people what to do.

Emergency response professionals including “the Government” have a tendency not to trust the public not to panic.  As a result, official announcements or warnings often lack specifics, as evidenced by the Homeland Security color-coded alerts: easy to understand but not much else.

8. In a disaster, the herd instinct—not panic—will likely take over the group.  Harness it to save yourself and others.

Contrary to popular opinion, the normal response of a crowd in a disaster isn’t panic but to seek out other people.  Use loud, clear warnings and gestures and tell people what to do.  In a disaster, our obedience to authority can be an asset.

In a study of mine disasters, groups that survived each had a leader.  The leaders assumed that role not by rank or through bullying, but by being calm, knowledgeable, aware of details, and decisive, thus earning the group’s respect.

9. Group panic does occur, but only under three specific conditions.

Detailed research has shown that three specific conditions are required to trigger panic in groups.  People must (a) feel they might be trapped (knowing they’re trapped, like sailors on a submarine, won’t trigger it); (b) have a great sensation of helplessness; and (c) have a sense of profound isolation.  Eliminate any one of the three, and you’ve prevented the panic.

10. Resilient beliefs can cushion the blow of any given disaster

Preparation, supply-stocking, and training can’t prevent disasters, they can only improve your survival chances.  Certain beliefs have also been shown to speed the physical and emotional recovery of survivors.  They are:

  • A belief that they can influence life events
  • A tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil
  • A conviction that they can learn from both positive & negative experiences
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