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The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes - and why

4.13  ·  Rating Details ·  3,737 Ratings  ·  666 Reviews
It was 8.46 a.m. on 9/11 when Elia Zedeño, who had worked in the World Trade Center for twenty-one years, heard a booming explosion and felt the building lurch violently to the south. She grabbed her desk, taking her feet off the floor, and screamed, 'What's happening?'

How would you react to a disaster? Would you be paralysed with fear? Would you panic and lose control? Or
Paperback, 320 pages
Published April 2nd 2009 by Arrow (first published January 1st 2008)
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Alisa Kester
Jun 15, 2008 Alisa Kester rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Dec 10, 2008 Brooks rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 17, 2016 Mizuki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book tells you many useful things about survival, human's mind and disasters, and I really enjoy the author's sense of humor as well. Informative, educational and effectively written. We need more non-fictional books like this.

PS: I really like how scientists are having all the fun when they run their experiments: (1) getting people to jump from building (with safety neat beneath) and (2) getting people to swim through a mazelike swimming pool, so they can analyze how human's brain would wo
I am, admittedly, very interested in disasters and their aftermath. I have been ever since I was a girl - I remember reading about The Titanic with fascination. I was obsessed with Pompeii for a while. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, all of it. Maybe it's because when I was young my town flooded for several days, our basement filling with water and my dad away all day filling sandbags as the streets flowed like a river. I don't know. But I've always had a healthy fear of and fascination with what ...more
Atila Iamarino
Uma boa leitura sobre comportamento humano e desastres. Como nos acostumamos com saídas de incêndio, alarmes e outras coisas durante a rotina, de maneira que são esquecidos durante um desastre. O que leva as pessoas a negarem o perigo e as etapas entre reconhecer e aceitar uma situação perigosa, com mais conteúdo sobre cognição e a pesquisa de Thinking, Fast and Slow (que vejo cada vez mais em todo tipo de livro). E uma parte sobre como as pessoas reagem ao desastre, seja paralisando ou agindo c ...more
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
Camilla Severns
This book was an amazing experience. I feel strengthened and prepared for any disaster that comes my way....well almost any disaster. This book has a great mix of psychology, disaster scenarios, personal stories, and scientific research. It makes me look at things in a new light. And it makes me want to be an emergency prepared nerd. Next time I go to a movie theater or get on a plane, I know I'll be checking for the emergency exits.
Aug 06, 2012 Angela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Sep 02, 2009 Ami rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Jul 12, 2013 Jacob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a would-be hero I found this even better than I expected, and hard to put down. It would probably make a good companion to The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence as a book about how human instincts in an emergency can be either really helpful or really harmful, depending on the situation. In either case it's useful to know, such as how screaming and swearing (yes, the swearing is necessary too) is very good for bringing someone out of a panic so you can rescue them. ...more
Apr 02, 2009 Shannon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 26, 2009 Staci rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: all-time-favs, 2009
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
Jan 31, 2011 Trena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
E.J. Fisch
Jan 29, 2015 E.J. Fisch rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, own-it
I read books like this for two reasons: 1) because I find concepts like this intriguing and useful from a personal standpoint, and 2) because it acts as research for my own writing. Parts of this book were certainly more interesting/helpful than others (I found the chapters on 9/11 and resilience most captivating), but all in all it was a thought-provoking read. I didn't feel like it really explained "why" any of the featured people survived -- it merely showed what they did. I would have liked ...more
Ann Frost
Oct 01, 2013 Ann Frost rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jo Ann
May 18, 2012 Jo Ann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It was a fascinating look at what makes us tick, especially when disaster strikes. I liked reading about the physiological causes for our behavior, as brain chemistry has always fascinated me, but I also enjoyed examining the sociological aspects of our responses, as well. I had always operating on the misconception that panic was inevitable in these types of situations, but have learned that this type of behavior is far less common than I had previously thought. All in all, it was a strangely o ...more
Sep 01, 2008 Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Misericordia ❣
Incredible. A textbook, basically, on all things scary. And an extremely illuminating one at that.

For all these reasons, perhaps, heroes feel a nonnegotiable duty to help others when they can. “It’s something in your heart, your soul, and your emotions that gets a hold of you and says, I gotta do something,” Oliner says. This finding agrees with the results of other (albeit scant) research into heroism. People who perform heroic acts are very often those who are “helpers” in everyday life, be
Victor Sonkin
Not that it provides many answers — but considering the questions is an interesting and necessary task. The author deals with different types of disaster and different types of reaction, from active heroism to (one of the most interesting things, I think) complete loss of activity, similar to how Livingstone described his famous contact with the lion. Well-written and generally quite gripping.

The Halifax Explosion (Nova Scotia).
The Exploding Streets of Guadalajara.
Survivability of Airplane Accid
Jun 20, 2017 Hannah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Honestly, this was a great book. Its title is more rhetorical than literal, though there are several conclusions made about the types of people who tend to survive disasters, and the types of situations that tend to be survivalable.

I was worried that this book would give me anxiety about all the horrible and unexpected ways I can perish, but it managed to do the opposite! Though I've been fortunate that I've never had to meet my "disaster personality" (the person you become in crises), I defini
Nov 09, 2016 Charles rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“The Unthinkable” is basically a self-improvement manual. But the promised self-improvement isn’t better organization, inner peace or higher task efficiency; rather it is increased odds of living through a disaster. And while the book accomplishes the goal of self-help for the attentive reader, even more it shows that who lives and who dies mostly results from characteristics of the individual. Many of these are innate and wholly unchangeable, such as sex, intelligence and ability to absorb stre ...more
Oct 16, 2012 Lesli rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 17, 2010 Carl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Steven Peterson
Nov 15, 2009 Steven Peterson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 17, 2014 Zora rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Jul 26, 2015 poiboy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Don't Panic!" - Douglas Adams

I discovered The Unthinkable after looking for some effective instructional books on disaster preparedness. Instead of resting on an effective guide by Bear Grylls, I chose to read Amanda Ripley's book.

I can say that I am a person who better adapts to a problem, situation or difficulty, if I can understand its nature. The Why more then the How is more helpful for my ability to adapt and problem solve. In this very accessible book, Ripley give ample description and
Todd Stockslager
Fascinating study of the reactions of victims and survivors of disaster--and why people fall into each category. This book may not save your life in a specific disaster (the practical instructions are limited to such basics as taking the stairs from your office on occasion to be aware of the routes), but it will provide an afternoon's worth of thought-provoking reading while you are waiting for the next one to hit.

Ripley (a Time magazine reporter) knows how to blend fact and personal interest co
May 08, 2010 refgoddess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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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...

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“The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future. This strategy works elegantly in most situations. But we inevitably see patterns where they don’t exist. In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions. There is also the peer-pressure factor. All of us have been in situations that looked ominous, and they almost always turn out to be innocuous. If we behave otherwise, we risk social embarrassment by overreacting. So we err on the side of underreacting.” 3 likes
“Narrative is the beginning of recovery.” 2 likes
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