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Apr 25

Book Review: The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyThe Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley

This book is a lot like those “worst case disaster books” where anxious over-planning worry-worts like me can fantasize about the worst things imaginable and console ourseles that we are better prepared now that we have more information. Even though I’m probably not going to be much more prepared. I would still probably freeze if frightened badly enough, and I don’t have enough social capital to force an entire company to practice monthly evacuation drills, and while doing fire drills in the home seems like a good idea, in reality it would just be “go outside” and I do that a few times a day anyway.

But still, Ripley combines both visceral and titillating survivor (and non-survivor) stories of how people have reacted during fires, plane crashes, hostage situations and other life-or-death scenarios with actual science about what happens in a person’s body when their fear gets too great. She devotes different sections to the different possibilities: panic (rare), herd instinct, freeze, and hero.

I knew about people freezing in fear situations, but I didn’t realize that it was the same thing that happens to chickens when they’re “hypnotized.” I didn’t realize it could persist a long time after the event was over. I also didn’t know that people had a very, very strong urge to stick together when they were in a fearful situation, that people will follow firefighters into a building just because they are biologically primed to follow a leader. More frightening even than the (admittedly low possibility) idea of being in a disaster is the idea that if such a thing happened, I or anyone else might have our brain hijacked by the amygdala.

She also spends some time talking about heroes. Heroes tend to be single, male, and childless. That makes a lot of sense: women generally don’t get praise for surviving something they shouldn’t have been dumb enough to do in the first place, especially if other people heavily count on them staying alive (like their kids.) Also, chicks dig heroes, so you’d think for guys that would be a motivator. But the heroes themselves say that they do heroic things because they couldn’t live with the consequences of not doing something. That was an interesting twist.

Ripley also gives you some good solid advice for prolonging your own life. Don’t worry about the terrorist attack, the fire, the hurricane. Worry about heart disease, cancer and stroke. That’s what’s really likely to get you.

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