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Book Review - The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why by Amanda Ripley

Category Book Review Amanda Ripley The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

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So you find yourself in the midst of a 9/11-type disaster or a natural disaster like an earthquake.  Observing from a distance, it's easy to second-guess the decisions of those whose lives are threatened.  You think you'd be far more decisive and intelligent.  But would you?  Amanda Ripley examines that question in her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why.  It's an excellent read on the different forces at play in disaster scenarios, and how come your "expected" response may not be anywhere close to what you actually end up doing.

Introduction: "Life Becomes Like Molten Metal"
Part 1 - Denial: Delay - Procrastinating in Tower 1; Risk - Gambling in New Orleans
Part 2 - Deliberation: Fear - The Body and Mind of a Hostage; Resilience - Staying Cool in Jerusalem; Groupthink - Role Playing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire
Part 3 - The Decisive Moment: Panic - A Stampede on Holy Ground; Paralysis - Playing Dead in French Class; Heroism - A Suicide Attempt on the Potomac River
Conclusion - Making New Instincts
Author's Note; Notes; Selected Bibliography; Index

Ripley uses the stories of individual survivors (and a few who didn't make it) to analyze how our minds react to an unexpected traumatic experience.  She frames the responses as three phases of something called a Survival Arc, which make up the flow of the book.  The denial phase happens immediately after the event occurs.  We rationalize away the most logical explanations and attempt to paint the event in terms of what we consider normal.  This is why we ignore fire drills and don't exhibit any urgency in the face of impending danger like fire or hurricanes.  After denial (assuming that denial doesn't end up killing you), we move into the deliberation phase.  We've accepted that things aren't "normal", but we're still not sure what to do about it.  Some become docile and follow anyone who seems to have a plan, regardless of how smart or idiotic it may be.  Others step out of their assigned roles and become leaders, herding people to safety although it's not their "job".  After deliberation comes the decisive moment, the time when you take action and commit to a course of action.  Many believe that panic is the most common reaction.  But in reality, many groups tend to stay calm for various reasons.  In the "hero" category is the person who puts themselves at risk of death to save others, regardless of how hopeless the odds may seem.  What's strange is the reason why people would do this.  It's not the "I wanted to be a hero" mindset in many cases.  Instead, it's the "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't" feeling.  Finally, Ripley wraps up the book with examples of how training and teaching can alter the outcome of a disaster, and get people to react in ways that can save their lives with only a few simple changes in thinking.

This is an excellent book for the times we live in.  We go about our lives, expecting everything to be "normal".  But there's absolutely no guarantee that your day in the office won't turn into a life-or-death struggle that you are completely unprepared to handle.  Just the simple knowledge of these phases can go a long way towards making you aware of your surroundings, as well as giving you the proper understanding of what's happening to others around you.  If you take the time to incorporate Ripley's insights into your mental framework, you'll up your odds significantly in terms of being a survivor instead of a statistic.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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