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The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  2,607 ratings  ·  536 reviews
Discover how human beings react to danger–and what makes the difference between life and death

Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will
Paperback, 288 pages
Published June 16th 2009 by Harmony (first published January 1st 2008)
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Easy read on history of disaster planning. Good gut check on understand risk and how to respond. Starts with the Halifax Explosion in 1917 and explores 9/11, 1993 bombing, Sewer explosions of Guadalajara, and Katrina. Some of the interesting items. 1) Initial response in a disaster is always by neighbors or self rescue, so be prepared 2) Understand risk of activities – don’t watch the news (references Taleb above), so Heart Attack, Cancer, Stroke, Car accident. A study showed an additional 2000 ...more
I don’t know if it was the author’s intention, given that her book is about disaster preparedness and how we can train ourselves to survive pretty much any scenario, but I spent all 266 pages going Dear God. Dear God. Please do not let me end up in a disaster. Please, please please. Please.

I am not going to be good in any sort of awful situation. I’m not the sort of person who can break my own foot in order to escape a sinking plane, or who can cut through my own arm nerve by shrieking nerve in
Jun 19, 2008 Lis rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone & everyone
Shelves: non-fiction
Everyone should read this book! Besides being filled with utterly fascinating tales of how different people react during disasters (did you know panic is actually an extremely rare response?) it gives very helpful ideas/plans for how to prepare yourself mentally for being involved in one. This is the type of book you're always reading bits aloud to whoever happens to be in the room; I cannot stress how terrific and interesting it is...just knowing the most common reasons people die in disasters ...more
Nov 18, 2009 Ami rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: optimistic misanthropes, people with disaster-themed nightmares
Books about disasters don't get much better than this! The subject is fascinating--not the cause of disaster, not the cleanup afterwards, but the actual DURING, which the author calls the "survival arc". The book explores peoples' various reactions to emergencies, and the psychology & evolutionary theory behind them. Perhaps most importantly, the author explains which behaviors are most adaptive, and advocates that ordinary citizens (as opposed to just emergency management personnel or safet ...more
Disaster Personality… Who knew?! As it turns out, we all have one. Even folks we don’t believe to have any personality at all! My attempt at humor aside, Amanda Ripley examines human behavior before, during, and after disasters. As the reader I found myself examining my own disaster personality. And, more than just picking apart behavior in disasters Ripley believes that by examining disasters and planning for them through the lens of human behavior, we can do better as individuals, as a society ...more
What a fantastic book! Despite the ominous cover, it was a positive look at human reactions to disasters. It took case studies from September 11, Katrina, fires, plane crashes, etc and went through fear, dread, panic, heroism, and other reactions. The book was facinating, presenting so many intruiging facets of human behavior and brain functions. Once you read some of them, you immediately want to hurry and find someone to tell about it or talk it over with. It got to the point that Michael woul ...more
Ever had a book that keeps you up at night? One that provides starters for many conversations? One that you want to hand to everyone you live or work with and encourage them to finish it? One that makes you really want to stand up and take action? This book did all of those things for me.

Amanda Ripley did a fabulous job compiling disaster stories and presenting the reactions of multiple individuals.

I found myself reading passages to my husband and discussing how the people involved reacted diff
Jeff Walden
Ever wondered how you'd act if you suddenly found yourself in a disaster? This book might get you started thinking more precisely about how you'd act. It's not academic research (although Ripley frequently refers to it and consults experts, providing sources in end notes), but it's a decent survey of how people respond to disasters. It's peppered throughout with stories derived from interviews, news articles, and so on, giving it a nicely human feel.

Ripley organizes her book, and attacks the top
Ripley systematically examines how humans respond to disaster, be it the Twin Towers on 9/11, a fire in a nightclub, or a plane crash. She incorporates neuroscience, psychological research, and extensive interviews with survivors to examine the phases of processing and the variety of responses to disaster.

It's not really meant to be a primer on how to train yourself to survive, but the biggest takeaway is practice, practice, practice. Plane crash survivors are likely to have flipped through the
David Tendo
Kinda disappointed to be honest. I mean, it is an engaging read and the her writing style is very readable, which is why I'm so frustrated with how mediocre the actual content was. I think my expectations were misled by the subtitle on the cover - "Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why". From the subtitle I was expecting an eye-opening, thought-provoking book based on scientific studies and statistical research similar to Freakonomics and The Tipping Point etc, but what we got were psycholo ...more
This book was absolutely fascinating. It has a lot to do with the behavior of disaster victims, which is a not well researched area. I particularly liked reading the accounts of survivors describing what it was like to live through these situations; how they never thought they'd act the way they did. There's a lot of interesting information about how your body physically changes when under threat, and how your "disaster personality" comes out. I couldn't put it down.
An explosion in wartime Halifax, a fire in a country club during the disco era, a plane crash into the Potomac, and, of course, the collapse of the Twin Towers. What do they all have in common? The people who survived were able to snap out of their stupor; they had plans in place or were able to formulate very plans quickly, and they had practiced evacuation procedures. Although she writes too much in the choppy, truncated sentences of a veteran journalist, Ripley's investigation into the psycho ...more
This was a great book to listen to--well-read by the Audible narrator and there's nothing like light social science about disasters to hold my attention.

Apart from a few quibbles with the author's terminology (she uses the term "evolve" unfortunately a few times, such as to describe how police officers develop the ability to stop flinching at gunfire through repeated exposure) this was not only interesting but also pretty moving. It's fascinating to consider what makes people react as they do i
Steven Peterson
The author, Amanda Ripley, reports her reflections on how people respond to disaster--and how they can improve that response. Throughout the book, she refers to a variety of disasters and notes how people responded--whether well or not so well. Her approach (Page ix): "I started to research the stories of survivors from. . .disasters. The overlaps were startling. People in shipwrecks, plane crashes, and floodwaters all seemed to undergo a miraculous metamorphosis. They performed better in some w ...more
Recommended by a facilities dude from work. Fascinating. Tells of individual and group responses to disasters. The parts about individual brain activity are surprising. We can predict the likelihood of PTSD, of success as a marine. We can measure physiological responses. We can codify the behavior: freezing, gathering (of things and other people). The tendency to call other people to verify that it's an emergency, the tendency to not move if others don't, the lack of trust in the unknown, the un ...more
Each of us can benefit from this sobering read about human behavior in the face of disaster. There are some real surprises, including how infrequently humans actually panic -- that panic, while it does exist, is not the normal reaction. When faced with overwhelming peril, most of us will become paralyzed and be very slow to act. We will mill about (like cattle), we will look to others, we will gather personal belongings, and most alarming of all, we will forget how to perform the simplest of tas ...more
The author of this book gathered scientific studies about how our bodies physiologically deal with life-or-death situations, and interspersed the studies with interviews with people who lived through such situations: the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the Virginia Tech shootings, the recent tsunami in Asia, a horrific restaurant fire, airplane crashes, oceanliner sinkings, etc. Personal responses typically go through the same three phases (denial, deliberation, decision) although these phases last long ...more
Kathleen Hagen
The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters, and Why? By Amanda Ripley, narrated by Kirsten Potter, produced by Random House Audio, downloaded from

Ripley, a well-known New York Times writer, decides to take on the question: who survives traumas, and do those survive have talents or characteristics that those who don’t survive don’t have? She looks at what is known about various disasters, including famous ones like 9/11, various famous plane crashes, ferryboat sinkings, famous restauran
3.5 maybe

As a person who always counts the rows to the airplane exit and who has a go bag in my closet just in case, I figured reading this book was just one more thing to do to try and prepare for the kinds of things you hope will never actually happen.

The book is filled with lots of examples of how people reacted in various types of disasters. Panic is rare. People tend to progress from disbelief to deliberation and finally to action. The best thing to do to prepare yourself? Make a plan ahead
Dec 01, 2014 Zora rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Zora by: the disaster group here at goodreads
Shelves: non-fiction, weather
You know when you like a book so much, you drag it with you into the bathroom and stir your zucchini slices one-handed while holding the book open and turning the page with your nose? This was one of those books for me, and it's non-fiction, which is a rarer experience for me.

Admittedly, I'm fascinated by disaster. I've been in minor and major ones and end up being one of those people who perform better in disasters than in normal life. I've gotten myself some CERT training, and I totally get th
This book is fascinating. Its about the different human reactions to disasters. Why we do the different things we do during tragedies, what evolutionary traits service us well, and what ones create more harm now that society has progressed. This book infuriating me when it discussed how public works plans for disasters. I think that is the point if more people knew how organizations ridiculously plan for disasters we would all be outraged. Officials have so little faith in the average person. Th ...more
An excellent book examining various disasters in detail, and what improved chances of survival. She uses different language but the concepts will feel very familiar with readers aware of John Boyd's OODA Cycle (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act).

In a disaster people typically go through three phases: Denial, Deliberation, and Decision.

People don't panic as much as authorities believe they do, and authorities' false belief in panic causes more problems than it prevents. p44 "the people in charge of warn
Terri Light
I'll admit that I have worried about disasters, accidents, and general acts of angry nature. Who hasn't, right? Terrorism. Who is not afraid to get caught in the crossfire? I laugh about the Zombie Apocalypse with my friends. But then something clicked. I live in a city, I travel by airplane, I have stayed in high-rise exactly would I react in a real disaster? This book plunges you right through the nightmare and into the scenarios and the scientific studies of why and where those t ...more
Everyone's wondered: how would I react in a crisis? Ripley describes the different reactions people have and why freezing up might be just as evolutionarily advantageous as being a hero. Her main take-away is that citizens need to be prepared to take care of themselves instead of relying on some other authority to tell them what to do. She makes the very good point that in flight 93 and the 9/11 attacks, citizens were draftees in the war on terror. This isn't to say that we need to be panicked a ...more
Ana-Maria Bujor
If there is a book that can save lives, this is it. It is the most illuminating book on human nature I have ever read, the kind that does not let you fall asleep because you think about what YOU would do. From people freezing and having a cigarette while their ship was sinking to 18-year olds saving hundreds of people because they hated their jobs, this it the book that made me reevaluate my behavior. This is indeed a necessary read.
Katie Pesznecker
Fascinating look at what happens to humans -- emotionally, physiologically, intellectually - when faced with disaster. Why do only some people survive? Why do some freeze with indecision and fear? Why are others driven to heroic acts? Highly recommend this to anyone whose careers involve crisis management, emergency response, risk management -- or heck, if you just want to be prepared and increase your survival odds.
Throughout the lengthy parade of historical disasters in The Unthinkable (including plane crashes, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech school shootings, the collapse of the WTC in the 9/11 attacks), I found myself trying to imagine their reactions -- to figure out I they would be one of the eponymous survivors.

I suspect it's human nature to want to believe that you are different than the victims of these events: you are smart enough/resourceful enough/unshakeable enough that you would be the ha
This book is exactly what it sounds like from the cover blurb and introduction - the author examines human behavior in past disasters and speaks with scientific experts (neurologists, behaviorists, etc.), military/ police/ fire personnel (experiential experts), and disaster survivors to explore how the brain works for some people that makes them more likely to survive or perish in a disaster.

Through this exploration, she gives the reader a better understanding of how to mentally prepare for a d
If you were in a disaster, what would you do? This book says that you won't do what you think you might, because you won't be thinking clearly at all. You might freeze and do nothing, you might stop and start gathering things you don't want to leave behind, you might go along with the crowd even if you realize they are not acting sensibly. Amanda Ripley has written for Time magazine and the style of this book is magazine-like. It is full of information about the value of having thought about wha ...more
Ann Frost
A fascinating book about who survives in disasters. The short answer: those who are prepared. I will now pay attention to those airline safety briefings (and so should you!), especially noting the nearest exit. Also, if you are seated in the exit row, please don't pull up on your seat's arm rest thinking that it will open the emergency exit (as one woman did)- it won't and we'll all die.

Lots of good stuff about panic, freezing, and the behaviour of crowds. Illustrations from disasters we all kno
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1 14 Aug 09, 2012 08:35AM  
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From the author's website:

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She is the author, most recently, of The Smartest Kids in the World--and How They Got That Way, a New York Times bestseller. Her first book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, was published in 15 countries and turned into a PBS documentary.
More about Amanda Ripley...
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way The case against high school sports

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“The Unthinkable is not a book about disaster recovery; it’s about what happens in the midst—before the po­lice and firefighters arrive, before reporters show up in their rain slickers, before a structure is imposed on the loss. This is a book about the survival arc we all must travel to get from danger to safety.” 2 likes
“But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene, saving one another. They did incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off sur­vivors with car jacks. They used garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks.” 1 likes
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