The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why

I recently read Amanda Ripley’s book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why”. The book explores some of recent history’s disasters and human responses to them. Ripley investigates reports on the incidents, conducts interviews with those who survived the events, and consults leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts to try to untangle the common human responses to disasters, in an effort to learn from the past.

She finds that rapid response to disaster situations are rare, and often a result of pre-programming or preparation on the individual’s part. Ripley identifies three main stages of the “survival arc” we all go through in responding to mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the “decisive moment”. The three stages do not necessarily follow a “1-2-3 and it’s over” format; during a disaster situation a person is likely to go through various stages, doubling back and looping round as new challenges are faced. I will go into more detail about these stages in other blog posts, but here I will give a general overview of the main points.


1. Denial

This is the stage where the brain freezes, unable to come to terms with what it is experiencing; it is in shock. Ripley looks at the cases of the World Trade Centre and Katrina striking New Orleans. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, many people delayed evacuating, staying at their desk and calling relatives to find out what had happened. During Hurricane Katrina, many people did not evacuate (for a variety of reasons); this was often¬†because they did not think it would be as devastating as it turned out to be. The brain tries to deny what is happening by either thinking “this can’t be happening to me” if the experience is new, or “this can’t be happening again” if they have had a similar experience. How long we delay depends largely on our perception of risk.

2. Deliberation

The deliberation phase generally comes after our brains have gotten over the initial shock, realising something bad is happening. However, at this stage, we do not know what to do about it and are unable to make a decision. Our cognitive thinking and reasoning are compromised at this stage by fear, meaning decisions are harder to make. Fear can be a huge stimulant in responding to disasters, giving a dump of adrenaline to be able to “flee” the source of danger. However, it also can have side effects which can hamper decisions, such as narrowing of vision/loss of hearing, or can even cause you to “freeze”.

3. The Decisive Moment

The third stage comes after the delay and deliberation – we accept we are in danger, a decision has been made and now we take action based on that decision. The exception to the rule is “panic”, which is relatively rare in disaster situations according to Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built In Hell”, despite what many Hollywood movies tend to portray. Ripley explores how panics start and what it feels like to be caught in one. She investigates¬†examples of heroism as a response to disasters, and examines why some people perform heroic acts (the exception rather than the rule).


Finally, Ripley brings all the research and case studies together to explore what we can learn from these disasters and survivors’ experiences. They key point I took from this was preparation, especially planning contingencies, and practising¬†increased the chances of survival. By practising escape procedures and evacuation protocols – by physically going through the motion when it is still safe – your survival rates increase. This gets rid of the deliberation phase of the survival arc – you do not need to make complex cost-benefit analysis decisions during the moment when your body and mind are being paralysed by fear. You have trained your body to respond (evacuate through designated route) to a stimulus (simulated disaster) previously, and so in response to a real stimulus (disaster), your body already pre-programmed to respond in kind.

The book was well-written and engaging. Whilst not dealing solely with natural hazard-related phenomena, the lessons learned from human responses to mortal peril are transferable. I would recommend this book not only to those in the disaster research/academic field, but also to those with a general interest in disasters/human behaviour. It was easy to read and interesting. Despite the topic (disasters are not exactly cheery), I did find myself enjoying it.