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The Unthinkable-Who Survivies…
psychology of Movements
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Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. A riveting page turner for those of us curious about how people behave when the shit hits the fan. Lots of stories from survivors of the Twin Towers, hotel fires, stampedes in Jerusalem, school shootings and plane crashes. Interviews with brain specialists, professionals and heroes even those who could do nothing, but offer a human face of compassion.

The message of the book is that people are cooperative and willing, they just need guidance and information. Authorities and professionals don’t trust regular people with enough instruction or tools to help themselves. Author notes suggestion by British House of Commons that airports should allow people a chance to use emergency equipment in a mock-up cabin where people wait at the gate instead of just having them sit there watching CNN. Aviation people wouldn’t even consider it.

Authorities fear that people will panic at the very idea of an emergency, not to mention how it would impact business. In Katrina the mayor held off on the announcement to evacuate because his lawyers feared lawsuits from businesses. By now they have figured out that government is immune to that kind of lawsuit. Thai officials had same fear of backlash before tsunami.

Humans are motivated by both human psychology and cultural memory. Thus training would go a long way to helping a culture get it. And it helps if people are told why they should do things, ie: we all know we should put on the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting a child, but I never knew why. It’s because you would black out in 5 to 10 seconds without oxygen and then where would your kid be?

A note to activists and apocalypse mongers. There is a fine line between getting people’s attention about a possible emergency situation and loosing them to a sense of futility. Thus give a scenario that is manageable, but not overwhelming recommends one professional.

Author divides the book into the three phases of human psychological response to a crisis, denial, deliberation and action. In the denial phase people will carry on partying on a sinking ship without questioning why the boat is lurching so. Or they will mosey about gathering up stuff rather than evacuate immediately. (Carry-on luggage is a particular hazard in airline crashes.) Thus first responders in charge must shout their orders aggressively.

Once a denial is overcome fear kicks in, but in interesting ways. As the heart rate goes up the brain focuses better (which is probably why my ADD clients boast that they are really good in a crisis. All their distractiveness is overridden). People perform best when their heartbeat is between 115 and 145 beats per minute (resting heart rate is 75 beats per minute). Over 145 and their abilities deteriorate. Fear can bring extrasensory ability for survival, but takes away other normal skills. People might experience temporary blindness, for instance, or pee their pants.

People also stick to their normal relationships and assume the roles they play in everyday life, but they will cooperate and think as a group. Relationships with people and their status matter, but even strangers will form relationships with strangers because the crisis itself will bond them. This is the heartwarming part. She devotes an entire chapter to groupthink. Crisis creates people eager to follow. This cries out for trained leadership. Resiliance can become encultured in a group which is exactly what the peak oil localizaton movement is all about. The example given here is of a town with a culture of evacuation in the face of hurricanes.

Resiliance in individuals, the author notes has three components, the belief that one can influence life events, find meaningful purpose in the turmoil and can learn from both positive and negative experiences.

Interesting analysis of panic as in stampedes. It’s mostly a matter of physics. People can’t see and are moving according to pressure on their space. Panic is the psychological choice of feeling trapped, but not knowing for certain that you are trapped, plus a feeling of helplessness and when compounded by the same reaction in others this leads to a profound sense of isolation. Panic is not nearly as common a response as people think, she says.

The book ends with an affirming blow by blow account of the Morgan Stanley evacuation of the towers led by Rick Rescorla. A case study of a meaningful emergency plan and a well prepared hero.

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