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The Unthinkable

Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

Amanda Ripley



Lesson from 9/11 and London 2005 was that emergency plans are designed to meet the needs of officials, not people. When the London Underground was attacked, there was no way for passengers to let driver know there had been an explosion. They had trouble getting out because the doors weren't designed to be opened by passengers. They couldn't find first aid kits to treat the wounded - it turned out the kits were kept in supervisors' offices, not on the trains.

Car accidents kill 40,000 people a year in US; guns another 30,000. Everyone knows someone who has died of one or the other.

People react extraordinarily slowly. When the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time in 1993 (car bomb in underground garage), it was the largest full-building evacuation in US history. But ten hours after the explosion, firefighters were still finding people who hadn't left their offices, despite power failure and smoke curling up the staircases.

We have a tendency to believe everything will be OK, because up till now, it has. We are slow to recognize a new, dangerous situation. And we don't want to over-react and risk social embarrassment.

15,400 got out of the World Trade Center on 9/11.People above the impact zone were trapped, but all but 135 people who had access to stairwells managed to escape. They took about a minute to make it down each floor - twice as long as designers had predicted. People who work in these buildings have never been required to undergo regular full-building practice evacuations - most people see the drills as a waste of time. They completely overestimate how well their brains will perform in a real crisis.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) points out that humanity spent most of its existence in 'Mediocristan' where you could readily identify threats and do something about them. Today we live in 'Extremistan' where technology has allowed us to create weapons that let people kill each other with little physical exertion, or lone individuals can kill hundreds or thousands.

Taleb refuses to read newspapers or watch TV news. He doesn't want to tempt his brain with short-term buy-sells cues. "I tell people that 'if it's in the news, don't worry about it'. The very definition of 'news' is 'something that hardly ever happens'."

The victims of Hurricane Katrina were not disproportionally poor, they were disproportionally old. Three quarters of the dead were over 60. They had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and Hurricane Camille in 1969. So they thought Katrina was more of the same. But since Camille, rapid development had destroyed much of the wetlands that protected against a storm surge.

If we were really worried about preventing the most likely causes of death, we would spend more money on therapists than police (you are twice as likely to kill yourself than you are to be killed by someone else during your lifetime).

Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast and Slow, with Amos Tversky, explained that people rely on emotional shortcuts, called heuristics, to make choices. The more uncertainty, the more shortcuts. And shortcuts, while useful, lead to a slew of predictable errors. (Kahneman eventually won Nobel Prize in Economics for his work).

We have two systems - the intuitive and the analytical. The intuitive is automatic, fast, emotional. The analytical is logical, contemplative, pragmatic. Old Q: A coffee and a donut cost $1.10 altogether. The coffee costs $1 more than the donut. How much is the donut? Your intuitive brain tells you it's 10 cents. Then your analytical brain kicks in and you work out that it should be 5 cents.

Terrorism is a mind game. In last 50 years, more Americans have been killed by food allergies than terrorist attacks. In the 2 years after 9/11, an estimated 2300 extra people killed on the roads because they drove instead of flew. The greatest cost of terrorism is the public's response to the attacks rather than the attacks themselves.

In a plane crash, the biggest problem is passengers trying to take their luggage with them. Instead of attendants saying "leave all hand baggage behind" they should say "Taking luggage will cost lives." But most professionals don't trust their clients, which actually makes things worse because they don't give people enough information to avoid frightening them.

Casinos are good at delivering lots of little mini rewards - free drinks, bonus points, surprise gifts. Anticipating these rewards leads to more risk taking.

Evacuation of high-rises becoming harder as people get fatter. When people walk down a staircase they sway slightly from side to side, and the fatter they are, the more they sway. So they take up more room on the stair, and fewer people can fit on it at any one time. Men die more in fires because less cautious. But it turns out that not all men. Not African American or Asian men - once out of their teens, they tended to be as cautious as women. Same for most white men. 30% of white men skewed the picture - men who were keen on status and hierarchy and technology.

Women twice as likely to be injured in 9/11 evacuation - for the most banal of reasons. They took off their high heels part way down and went barefoot. Survivors reported tripping over piles of high heels in the stairs.

People have very different responses to stress. Women faced with a flasher - one would laugh her head off, one would be enraged, another would be traumatized.

Resilience a precious skill. Resilient people have three personality traits - they believe they can influence life events, they tend to find meaning in life's turmoils, and they believe they can learn from both good and bad experiences. These beliefs act as a buffer, cushioning the blows. Dangers seem more manageable, and they perform better as a result.

People who are unreasonably confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call them "self-enhancers" but we would usually call them arrogant. They are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them.

After 9/11, this group with high sense of self-worth, rebounded easily.





People don't automatically panic in an emergency. Need 3 conditions: first people must feel that theymay be trapped; second a feeling of great helplessness (which escalates when you see others around you feeling the same); and third a sense of profound isolation.

Sometimes divers (and firefighters using oxygen masks) panic and rip off their masks, even though working properly. Turns out that the ones who do this can be predicted - they have higher anxiety levels even in normal life - tend to see everything as potentially stressful.

Passengers in plane crashes often sink into stunned torpor - paralysed - amygdala stress hormone cortisol is overwhelming rational parts of brain, preventing planning. This is why need to read safety info and be aware of where best exits are. And also why flight attendants now taught to scream at passengers - because a loud noise is best way to break through the torpor.

Most heroes are male, single, childless and young. For men, heroism gains you reproductive points.

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