There are lots of studies about how people react to unexpected danger, how they calculate risk, and how they make decisions in a crisis. I’ve been thinking about this with all the weather chaos stories of the last week. People trapped in the snow, wondering whether to abandon their cars or bed down for the night. Which option has the greater immediate risk? Which has the more burdensome medium-term consequences? People trapped in the Channel Tunnel, not sure whether to sit patiently and wait for instructions, or to get up and do something.
One of the best books I have read this year is Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes — and why. She interviews survivors from various twentieth-century disasters — terrorist attacks, plane crashes, fires, kidnappings, etc. — and opens up not just the horror of the experiences but also the thought processes and calculations that took place within them. Then she talks to experts in psychology and sociology to examine more scientifically how the human person typically functions in a moment of crisis. She tries to pinpoint what is to our advantage, and what is not.
There are some compelling stories; it’s like reading ten thrillers back-to-back. And I learnt a lot. Most people, Ripley explains, go through the stages of denial and deliberation before coming to a decision about how to act. This is why passivity rather than panic is usually the initial response to disaster.
This is one of the few books that has caused me to change my behaviour. Now, I really do look around the aeroplane to see if the nearest exit is behind me — knowing that clambering in the wrong direction could cost me my life.
But don’t buy this book if you are of a nervous disposition…