Books: The Unthinkable

When ModestyPress recommended The Unthinkable to me, in a comment on my post about the book City Life, I wondered what I had said about the book, or about cities, that made him think I would be interested in a book about disasters. But as our library had the book, I checked it out, and promptly was engrossed in the subject.

It’s a topic I would think anyone can relate to. I’ve never been near a major disaster, let alone in one. But I’ve been in car accidents (including a head-on collision that totalled my car), and wondered often what I would do if I encountered someone else trapped in a wreck, especially if fire were a factor. I imagine myself bravely helping save someone’s life, but I have no idea how I really would react in

Author Amanda Ripley demonstrates with numerous examples how people are often surprised by the way they do react in a crisis. People simply do not react the way we think they would – or the way designers of buildings, airplanes, and other transportation systems seem to think they would. In some ways they behave better than expected, in that very few panic (though those few often contribute to many deaths). In other ways they behave worse, as people’s ability to think rationally deteriorates rapidly in life-or-death situations.

I read a long time ago how cognitive ability is negatively affected by stress. It explains why contestants on quiz shows can miss what seem like simple questions, while those of us watching in our living rooms can easily yell out the answer. If being on TV and having thousands of dollars at stake makes people unable to remember facts they really do know, imagine how much worse the cognitive failure can be when one’s life is at stake.

How much do you have to know to survive a disaster? Not much, perhaps, but if what you can’t remember is the location of the closest exit, it’s a serious problem. I had never thought much before about the purpose of fire drills, other than that people should know what to do in case of a fire. I thought of the drills primarily as a benefit for those overseeing the evacuation, to see how quickly people would go to their assigned places, and whether there were bottlenecks along the paths to those places.

But apparently it also has a lot to do with imprinting on the brain the proper behavior during an evacuation, so that when the real fire occurs, the lost of rational thought does not stop us, because habit takes over. It works pretty well in schools I think. (I haven’t heard of any fires in our local schools but the students reportedly behaved extremely well during the tornado that came through town a few years ago.) But in most businesses, the drills are much less frequent, and the reactions far more nonchalant.

“Oh,” I think, as the siren goes off, “there must be a drill. Unless it’s just an equipment malfunction.” I look around to see how other people are reacting (which is exactly what people do in real disasters, checking for others’ reactions and going along with them). As people reluctantly get up from their desks, I head for the coat closet, thinking to myself that getting my coat first would be foolish if there were a real fire.

If I smelled smoke or saw flames, of course I’d head for the exit immediately. (Wouldn’t I?) But in five years, they’ve all turned out to be drills, equipment malfunctions (in which case we are told it’s OK, we don’t have to evacuate, before most of us make it out the door – probably not a wise course of action as we hesitate waiting to be told that is the case), or at worst a very minor fire at the far end of the large manufacturing complex. And like most people, I tend to expect that what has not happened before is not likely to happen in the future.

Of course disasters aren’t all that likely, at least not for any given individual. We all know that they happen every day, somewhere in the world, but they normally happen to someone else far away. Ripley talks about the “Lake Wobegon effect” – just as people tend to think that their children are above average, they expect disaster to strike elsewhere. And the disasters they do worry about (such as plane crashes or terrorist attacks) are much less likely to actually happen to them than the ones they should be prepared for, such as fire.

The best way to be prepared, Ripley explains, is to know what disasters are more likely, depending on where you live and work, and to practice whatever behavior would be important in such disasters. The better you know what to do, not just in your conscious mind but in whatever part of the brain it is that makes you do what you have practiced doing, the more confident you will be. And people who are confident tend to have an edge when it comes to survival.

I don’t particularly like that last idea, as “confident” is not a word that I can (confidently) apply to myself. I seem to second guess myself about just about everything. I look for confirmation from other people either acting or thinking the same way, or at least not disagreeing with what I say or do. I can deal with disagreement when I need to (sometimes), but it’s not easy.

I guess I’m hardly alone in that regard. One of the other points that Ripley returns to frequently is that of groupthink. In disasters, few people act alone. They clump together, whether for moral support or advice or simply not to be alone in what might be the last moments of their lives. Whoever asserts leadership by telling others what to do will usually be obeyed – whether the orders they give make sense or not.

In the end, I’m not sure how much useful information I got from reading this book. The primary advice is to learn about relevant risks, have a plan of action and practice it – all of which requires research and effort outside the scope of the book. The book points to Amanda Ripley’s website, which provides a link to Resources, with a wealth of information on preparing for various kinds of disasters.

Most of it is information that I either already know, or know I should do but have not gotten around to doing very thoroughly. I have gallons of water in my downstairs refrigerator, but not enough. I have never gotten around to putting together the kind of kit that is recommended should an evacuation be necessary. I have a first aid kit and an emergency kit in the car, but the latter is currently missing the blanket and extra clothes. I am pleased to see that at least regarding tornado preparedness, I scored pretty well on this quiz (I missed the question on what not to have in your emergency kit).

But I didn’t read the book primarily to be better prepared for disaster, but to learn something fascinating about human nature and behavior. Did you know that the most common reaction in a disaster is to do nothing? Part of it is denial (this can’t be serious, or else other people would be taking it more seriously – and of course the other people are thinking the same thing), part of it is the body’s instinctive reaction to danger. Sometimes, the body reacts to danger with a boost of adrenaline that enables seemingly superhuman feats. But more often, it slows people’s reactions, reduces sensory input, and in some cases literally paralyzes the body.

In some types of crisis, inaction can save lives. Ripley tells about one student at Virginia Tech who was the only one in his French class not to be shot by Seung-Hui Cho in his murderous rage. Clay Violand dropped to the floor and played dead – even after Cho left the room Violand somehow knew he would return, and that it was not yet time to move.

But in most cases, movement is necessary to get to safety. Get out of the burning building, get off the crashed plane, get to high ground in a flood or tsunami, get to low ground when a tornado is coming. It takes something to break through the stupor that overcomes people – someone yelling orders, for instance. Most people are surprisingly polite in a disaster, even more so than in everyday life. Barking orders may be hard to do, but it saves lives.

One chapter explored what makes a few people act with heroism, while most stand and watch. Researchers found there were few conclusions they could draw as to what set those people apart – other than the obvious fact of what they had done. One characteristic they seem to have in common is having had good relationships with their parents (hmm, I guess I’m not likely to be a hero in that case), another that they feel a moral obligation to help people.

In most cases, they don’t feel heroic, they just did what had to be done. Because if they didn’t, they’d have trouble living with themselves later. I’ve always wanted to be a heroic kind of person (as a girl I wished I were a boy because they seemed to have more opportunities to be heroes), but if I ever do save someone’s life, I’m sure it will be because I felt I couldn’t live with a death on my consciences because I hadn’t tried.

Which brings me around to Modesty Press’s comment when he first recommended the book. He considered it “possibly useful and helpful to people who read it regardless of their political or religious perspective.” What was there about disasters, I wondered, that might challenge my political or religious perspective?

It really doesn’t touch on politics much, other than to point out that government (at least in the U.S.) does not provide very useful resources for the average person for disaster preparedness. They put the majority of resources into helping the safety professionals to be prepared (even though safety professionals can’t help much in a real disaster if the ordinary people who make up the bulk of most crowds are not adequately prepared).

The book often makes mention of evolution, however, so I can see how some people might be concerned that it would challenge their worldview. Personally, I consider evolution a plausible explanation (as I discussed in my post about Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True). But regardless of whether you explain our similarities to the rest of the animal kingdom based on evolution, or on the Creator using common components and design elements, the similarities exist.

Ripley’s discussion of evolution is primarily in the context of how we are “hard-wired” to react in certain ways, similar to how animals react to danger. The chapter on heroism goes beyond this, speculating on how people who risk their lives – and sometimes die in the process – could pass on the genes that make them act that way. It is probably one of the weakest chapters, interesting mostly for the stories about heroes that it tells rather than the theorized explanations for their behavior.

I have heard since I was little that the reason I got goosebumps when I was cold or scared was because I shared a common evolutionary history with hairier mammals, where making hair stand up could warm them or make them look more theatening to enemies. I have to admit that the argument makes good sense, and I have trouble imagining a reason for goosebumps if evolution is not true. (Of course, that’s the case with a lot of human characteristics. But the fact that I can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.)

The main evolution-related points in the book, however, have to do with more dramatic reactions to danger. Many animals react by freezing so as not to attract attention, or playing dead so that a predator will discard the idea of eating it (because an animal that is already dead may be diseased – not that the predator knows this consciously but its instincts appear to work on that basis).

For most of human history (whether you consider it to be a few thousand years or over a hundred thousand), the survival mechanisms that worked well for animals worked well for humans also. Wild animals, rivals of one’s one kind, and starvation were serious dangers. Our bodies are not optimized for a sedentary life and abundance of fattening foods. And our brains are not optimized to deal with fires in skyscrapers or airplane crashes.


2 Responses to Books: The Unthinkable

  1. Margaret says:

    An interesting post. I took the quiz and got the right answer for what not to have in your emergency kit. But I got number 5 wrong, because it said What should you not do, and I answered accordingly, and it said Wrong, you should not do that. I suppose most people taking the quiz are not proofreaders and would not have noticed the unitalicized not?

  2. modestypress says:


    I am appreciative that you read the book and wrote an excellent and perceptive review (as is typical for you). There are indeed excellent books, web pages, and quizzes about how to survive emergencies and disasters. (The troubles are getting people to pay attention to them, to be properly prepared, and to sensibly prioritize.) Ripley’s book is interesting in that it analyzes the psychology, anthropology, and sociology of disaster.

    After I read this book, I read another interesting book–Clutch by Paul Sullivan. At first glance, one would think his book has nothing to do with how people react to disaster, but I came to the conclusion that Sullivan’s book complements Ripley’s book in many respects.

    For a review of Sullivan’s book and another book (which I haven’t read yet):


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