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The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

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It lurks in the corner of our imagination, almost beyond our ability to see it: the possibility that a tear in the fabric of life could open up without warning, upending a house, a skyscraper, or a civilization.

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 we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality–anything we’ve ever learned, thought, or dreamed of–ultimately matter?
Amanda Ripley, an award-winning journalist for Time magazine who has covered some of the most devastating disasters of our age, set out to discover what lies beyond fear and speculation. In this magnificent work of investigative journalism, Ripley retraces the human response to some of history’s epic disasters, from the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship in 1917–one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb–to a plane crash in England in 1985 that mystified investigators for years, to the journeys of the 15,000 people who found their way out of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Then, to understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts, formal and informal, from a Holocaust survivor who studies heroism to a master gunfighter who learned to overcome the effects of extreme fear.

Finally, Ripley steps into the dark corners of her own imagination, having her brain examined by military researchers and experiencing through realistic simulations what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire.
Ripley comes back with precious wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain’s fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain’s ability to do much, much better, with just a little help.

The Unthinkable escorts us into the bleakest regions of our nightmares, flicks on a flashlight, and takes a steady look around. Then it leads us home, smarter and stronger than we were before.

266 pages, Hardcover

First published June 10, 2008

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About the author

Amanda Ripley

6 books293 followers
From the author's website:

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for The Atlantic and other magazines and a New York Times bestselling author. Her books include High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, and The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why. Ripley spent a decade writing about human behavior for Time magazine in New York, Washington, and Paris. Her stories helped Time win two National Magazine Awards.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,066 reviews
February 1, 2019
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 they firefighters or nurses or police officers.
Perhaps because of their training and experience, heroes also have confidence in their own abilities. In general, like almost all people who perform well under extreme stress, heroes believe they shape their own destinies. Psychologists call this an “internal locus of control.” I asked Roger Olian if he felt in control of what happens to him. “There’s no question in my mind. To a very large degree,” he said. “Even if I couldn’t control it, I would feel like I should.”
Bystanders, on the other hand, tend to feel buffeted by forces beyond their control. “They pay scant attention to other people’s problems. They will concentrate on their own need for survival,” Oliner says. And bystanders, it’s worth remembering, are what most of us are.
Our obedience to authority in a disaster can be an asset, if the people in charge understand it. For years, aviation safety experts could not understand why passengers did so little to save themselves in plane crashes. They would sit in their seats instead of going to an exit. Those who did get up had an infuriating tendency to reach for their carry-on baggage before leaving. Then, once they made it to the exit door, they would pause for a dangerous amount of time before jumping down the slide. And in plane crashes, remember, you usually have a matter of seconds, not minutes, to get out.
In a series of experiments, safety officials ran regular people through mock evacuations from planes. The trials weren’t nearly as stressful as real evacuations, of course, but it didn’t matter. People, especially women, hesitated for a surprisingly long time before jumping onto the slide. That pause slowed the evacuation for everyone. But there was a way to get people to move faster. If a flight attendant stood at the exit and screamed at people to jump, the pause all but disappeared, the researchers found. In fact, if flight attendants did not aggressively direct the evacuation, they might as well have not been there at all. A study by the Cranfield University Aviation Safety Centre found that people moved just as slowly for polite and calm flight attendants as they did when there were no flight attendants present.
Panic occurs if and only if three other conditions are present, Quarantelli concluded. First, people must feel that they may be trapped. Knowing they are definitely trapped is not the same thing. In fact, in submarine disasters, such as the horrific sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000, humans are not likely to panic. The crew knows there is no way out. At submarine depths, even if they were to swim out of the hatch, they would not survive.
But if people worry that they might be trapped, that is a trigger for panic—even in wide open spaces. “War refugees caught in the open by strafing planes can develop as acute a sense of potential entrapment as individuals in a building during an earthquake who see all exits becoming blocked by debris,” Quarantelli wrote.
Second, panic requires a sensation of great helplessness—which often grows from interaction with others. What starts as an individual sense of impotence escalates when people see their feelings reflected around them. One person caught in explosions in a factory explained it this way to Quarantelli: “I can truthfully say that when I heard the moaning and crying of the others, I did get quite panicky.” Perhaps the Blitz and the Three Mile Island accident, like most disasters, did not cause panic because people did not feel very helpless. They could take shelter or evacuate, after all. And following the Lake Wobegon effect, the psychological phenomenon named after Garrison Keillor’s above-average town, most people probably suspected that they would be among the lucky ones.
The final prerequisite to panic is a sense of profound isolation, Quarantelli found. Surrounded by others, all of whom feel utterly powerless, we realize we are exquisitely alone. We understand that we could be saved—but no one is going to do it. Panic is, in a way, what happens when human beings glimpse their own impending mortality—and know that it didn’t have to be so.
It was hard to hear or think with the constant thud of the water hitting our precarious plastic shelter. Every thirty seconds or so, when a spray of ice-cold water leaked through, my fellow survivors would erupt in shrieks. At that moment, I remembered once being told by a military researcher that very cold or very hot environments tend to degrade human performance very, very quickly. The effect tends to be geometric. Sitting there for just five minutes in the wet, stinking huddle, I felt suddenly exhausted. I knew I’d be out of there in time for dinner. I knew my life wasn’t even remotely in danger, and I did not feel afraid. But still, I felt surprisingly drained. My brain must have been working harder than I consciously realized. At that moment, the idea of quietly surrendering in a real disaster didn’t seem quite so unimaginable.
The Finer Distinctions
At an upscale restaurant in downtown Portland, Oregon, two women are eating together at a table by the window. In the middle of their conversation, a drunken homeless man stumbles up to the window, unzips his pants, and pulls his penis up to the table. After a short period of gasps and guffaws, the police are called. Officer Loren Christensen arrives at the scene and finds two extremes. One of the women, he says, is “laughing her head off.” The other is slumped on a bench in the lobby with someone fanning her.
In his twenty-five years as a police officer, Christensen noticed this kind of variance often—particularly among female victims of flashers. “One would laugh it off. Another would be enraged. Still another would be emotionally traumatized.” Christensen, who has retired from the police force and now works as an author and martial-arts instructor, has always had trouble discerning what makes one person react so differently from another—even in war, when he was a military policeman. “In Vietnam, I saw people psychologically impacted in the extreme who worked as cooks. Cooks! And I saw infantrymen who had seriously faced the dragon who appeared, at least on the surface, to be fine.”
Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result. “Trauma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” says George Everly Jr., at the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness in Baltimore, Maryland.
This makes sense. A healthy, proactive worldview should logically lead to resilience. But it’s the kind of unsatisfying answer that begs another question. If this worldview leads to resilience, well, what leads to the worldview?
The answer is not what we might expect. Resilient people aren’t necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing that they have in abundance is confidence. As we saw in the chapter on fear, confidence—that comes from realistic rehearsal or even laughter—soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people “self-enhancers,” but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.
Less than a year after the civil war ended, George Bonanno at Columbia University interviewed seventy-eight Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens in Sarajevo. Each person in the study rated himself or herself when it came to psychological problems, interpersonal skills, health problems, and moodiness. Then each person was rated by his or her peers. A small group of people rated themselves significantly higher than others did. And these were the people found by mental health professionals to be better adjusted.
After 9/11, Bonanno found a similar pattern among survivors who were in or near the World Trade Center during the attacks. Those with high senses of self-worth rebounded relatively easily. They even had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. Their confidence was like a vaccine against life’s vicissitudes.
Several studies have found that people with higher IQs tend to fare better after a trauma. Resilient people may be smarter, in other words. Why would that be? Perhaps intelligence helps people think creatively, which might in turn lead to a greater sense of purpose and control. Or maybe the confidence that comes with a high IQ is what leads to the resilience to begin with.
The more important point is that everyone, regardless of IQ, can manufacture self-esteem through training and experience. That is what soldiers and police officers will tell you; that confidence comes from doing. As we saw in Chapter 3, the brain functions much better when it is familiar with a problem. We feel more in control because we are more in control. But in certain situations, like the one in which Shacham found himself as a rookie cop, sitting next to a violent criminal who had called his bluff, neither experience nor training could rescue him. He drew upon something else, something more fundamental.
Profile Image for Brooks.
253 reviews9 followers
May 15, 2021
Easy read on history of disaster planning. Good gut check on understanding 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 road deaths due to the decrease in air travel after 9/11. So, based on that we should all start our day with 20 minutes of meditation and a bowl of Oatmeal. 3) Very good information on fear. During a crisis, more people go catatonic than panic. Use profanity and scream to get people to move. For an individual, military training helps (make a plan, execute the plan) or just quickly think about why you need to live. Also, during a crisis most people lose track of time or can have tunnel vision or total vision loss. Hero’s tend to be unmarried males without children (the rest of us need to save our necks for our progeny). Very interesting story on Rick Rescorla, Director of Security for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center. After the fiasco of the 1993 bombing, he gave up on the port authority for disaster planning. He had actual, annual fire drills unlike the rest of the world trade center. He was ridiculed by the organization (this was a bunch of rich investment bankers). But 8 years later, he was vindicated when he got out 2800 employees of Morgan Stanley alive. Only 14 died which included himself and 4 of his guards. Take aways – know the relative risk of disasters in your area; practice fire drills; follow tornado, flood, and hurricane warnings; count the seats to an exit in a plane; take the stairs out of a hotel after checking in; take defensive driving seriously; Meditate (not just for heart health, but to calm in a disaster).
Profile Image for Ellen Gail.
826 reviews369 followers
December 19, 2022
Storytelling is essential to survival. It’s what turns preparation into ritual and victims into saviors.

I had this review 95% written and my computer died because its battery is crap. And now it's gone.

It was a bomb review. Just pretend you read it and it was REALLY good.

Unfortunately, you are left with the half-assed version of my review, because I've had an extremely rough week; I basically have the mental energy of a toad right now.

Veering away from the disaster that is my life, let's talk about The Unthinkable.

“Life becomes like molten metal,” he wrote. “Old customs crumble, and instability rules.”

For a book about panic, 9/11, hurricanes, and school shootings, The Unthinkable is infused with a comforting sense of hope. It's absolutely horrifying to hear the tales of a woman who stumbled down the stairs of the World Trade Center, or a teenager who lived through the Virginia Tech violence. But these tragic stories have a silver lining - humanity is better, kinder, and smarter than you'd ever think. Even in times of disaster, most people choose to be good. To do good.

And that's the first thing I want to commend Amanda Ripley on. She wrote a well-researched, thorough, optimistic book about disasters and the ways human nature moves though them. It's too easy to say it won't happen to me. Not this plane, not this storm. You've always been safe, so your brain sees no reason to think otherwise.

There's a lot of talk about our instinctual reactions in the face of danger. Why do we perform acts of heroism? How do crowds of people suddenly turn deadly? What physical reactions do our bodies go through when faced with unimaginable fear. How do we keep from freezing and move past denial ?

How are you most likely to die? Think for a moment: Given your own profile, what do you really think is most likely to kill you?

It's more a survival mentality type of story, but there's a bit of practical advice sprinkled throughout. Check your smoke detectors. Pay attention to emergency exit locations. Never try to drive through a flooded road. And finally, know what disasters you could personally face, and mentally rehearse for what you will do. For example, I live right on the border of tornado alley, as well as being close to a major fault line. So it makes much more sense for me to plan for either of those options as opposed to a tsunami.

I ain't afraid of no tsunami.

When people believe that survival is negotiable, they can be wonderfully creative. All it takes is the audacity to imagine that our behavior matters.

The Unthinkable is a remarkable work of nonfiction, realistic without pessimism, and full of personal, eye opening stories of disaster. At it's core, it is a book that believes in humanity as a group and as individuals. No only CAN we survive, we will.
Profile Image for Alisa Kester.
Author 8 books59 followers
June 19, 2008
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 could save you, because these reasons are not at all what you're always believed!
Profile Image for Cori.
790 reviews132 followers
September 26, 2019
A couple months ago, my place of employment sent me to a Readiness Conference. I fan-girled out listening to Dr. Kevin Menes talk about his experience in the emergency department responding to the Las Vegas shooting aftermath. Seriously. The guy deserves a medal and is a walking superhero in health care. The next session was on responding to shooters in the work force.

The thing that both Dr. Menes and the expert shooter response trainers continued to reiterate is something I completely agree with. But it took my belief from a personal anecdote to something with concrete data: when tragedy strikes, YOU are the first responder. Not 911. So what are you doing to be ready? What makes you confident you are as ready as you can be?

This book was referenced several times, and I immediately put it on my short list to read. It's now on my short list to buy.

Phenomenal book. There's still a long way to go, and I've had a method of self-defense for years, but this takes it to a whole new level. When I sit in a restaurant now, I know the exits. When I'm going around corners, I look for the hallway mirrors. And a million other small awareness things.

The book breaks down behavioral response to disaster, propensity for certain behaviors during disaster, and pushes the reader towards readiness. Not in order to instill anxiety in the ready, but to instill confidence because we know what the heck we would do IF. We've wrestled those demons and we're at peace with a plan.

Beyond fascinating and practical. Highly recommend.

I'd rate this a PG-13 for heavy adult material, swearing, and scenes of death and destruction.
255 reviews22 followers
June 7, 2013
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 psychological profiles of the different human responses to disaster. Which is interesting enough as it is, but Ripley doesn't quite tell us why people with these particular traits survive, or at least, she doesn't really link her arguments and points well, so each section feels very disjointed and muddled and the point is lost in there somewhere.
Profile Image for Mizuki.
2,905 reviews1,161 followers
April 4, 2016
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 work at the state of crisis.
Profile Image for Shane Parrish.
Author 3 books28k followers
April 6, 2020
An exceptional book about who survives and who doesn't in a disaster, Amanda Ripley writes:

"[W]e flirt shamelessly with risk today, constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors. How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our survival mechanisms? But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create “instincts”: we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks, just as we pass on language."
Profile Image for Bonny.
711 reviews26 followers
July 3, 2018
I hate to fly, but if I want to see my oldest son who lives 1700 miles away, I pretty much have to. When I was four months pregnant with this son, I was on a flight that had a fire in the cabin shortly after takeoff, so the pilot told us we needed to assume the crash position, return to the airport, land on a runway surrounded by fire trucks, and exit using the wing evacuation slides. Everything turned out fine, but it was pretty darn scary at the time. I've been terrified to fly ever since, asking my doctor for four Xanax four times a year when I had to fly. She has become less willing to prescribe them, so now I just have a drink before boarding.

When I saw this book at the library, even the title made my heart pound, but I decided to check it out and face my fear. Instead of being scary, I found this book to be interesting, informative, empowering, and a positive look at how people react when faced with a disaster. I hope I never have to learn what my "disaster personality" (how you respond in a crisis) would be if I was in the middle of a real disaster, but this book has given me a lot to think about, and at least listen to the safety presentation before takeoff, identify the plane exits as instructed, and learn where the fire exits are when I check into a hotel. I'm still afraid to fly, but after reading The Unthinkable, I can recognize that as an emotional response, and move beyond it by planning, preparation, practicing, and executing my plan. It's a fine line between telling yourself that the chances of a disaster happening to you or a loved one are slim and expecting disasters around every corner, but The Unthinkable provides an educational, logical, and positive approach to risk, fear, and disaster planning.
Profile Image for Corinne Edwards.
1,413 reviews210 followers
February 7, 2016
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 happens when things go wrong.

When a friend recommended this book to me, I checked it out from the library right away and I'm glad I did. Ripley's writing style is both informative - citing studies and interviewing researchers in the field of human stress and behavior - as well as casual in tone. She interviews disaster survivors from 9-11, fires, active shooting situations and plane crashes, giving insight into the different types of reactions that one can have when confronted with an extremely stressful situation. We learn about the three phases of a human's disaster response and how to help ourselves do a little better to ensure that we are more likely to be safe.

I found it fascinating - I wanted to bring up some of the ideas with people I talk to as well as apply some of her thoughts into my own life. It's straightforward and frightening sometimes but isn't trying to be scary - it's trying to inform and change behavior. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to feel more confident about how to keep themselves safe in those once-in-a-lifetime situations.
Profile Image for Mark Hartzer.
272 reviews1 follower
December 7, 2021
Probably 3.5 stars. I enjoyed the anecdotal stories and background, but perhaps I was disappointed at the lack of a clear "do this, not that" summation. Much of this is common sense, and we've heard it before.

The most important thing I got out of the book, is that it is an extremely common reaction to "freeze" when faced with a sudden/unexpected disaster, and it is common among all animals. Ripley makes a convincing case that it is an evolutionary adaption, and I think she is correct. Humans will look to see what others are doing when disaster strikes and will tend to seek consensus. This leads to "milling" behavior before people start taking action.

Short version: Read the emergency instructions and know where the emergency exits are on your flight.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,359 followers
September 27, 2016
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 como heróis. Cobre muito bem ao que se propõe.
Profile Image for Camilla.
116 reviews21 followers
April 3, 2016
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.
151 reviews
August 29, 2010
A successful journalist, Ripley can really smith words.This piece reads fast and easily. Also, without a doubt she introduces some interesting concepts about behavior of human beings in seriously threatening situations. I just wish that her conclusions were drawn more from scientific data and less from anecdotes and memories of victims.
Profile Image for Aj Sterkel.
756 reviews31 followers
December 13, 2021
If you're new to survival nonfiction, please start with this book! It's a great introduction. The author interviews survivors of disasters and analyzes why they survived while others didn't. How does the human brain react to a sudden catastrophe? The Unthinkable is an engaging, readable book that will (hopefully) make you aware of how your brain might sabotage you in an emergency. (Don't you dare grab your luggage from the overhead bin if your plane is on fire. People die from smoke inhalation because other people won't leave their luggage alone. You need to fight your brain's programming: Let the stuff burn; don't let the humans burn!)

If you've read a bunch of books about survival, then there isn't a ton of new information in this one. The author kept referencing other survival books, and I kept saying, "I've read that. And that. And that." It is an excellent starting point, though. Well-researched and easy to understand.
Profile Image for Jeff Walden.
64 reviews7 followers
January 26, 2013
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 topic, in three parts.

First she considers the initial response to a disaster: to deny its reality. She examines two varieties of denial: first, to delay in responding intelligently, or in truly coming to terms with what has happened; and second, in improperly evaluating risks before a disaster and while determining how to react during one.

Second she considers the second stage of responding: deciding what to do. She examines fear, how it affects action, and how people deal with it. Next she considers resilience: what makes people better able to deal with extreme situations and stress.

Third she considers the last stage: acting. She breaks this down into three varieties: panicking, becoming paralyzed by fear, and being a hero.

What are the ultimate conclusions? To a fair extent, they're common sense. Be prepared. Mentally plan out escape routes and contingency plans so that if something happens, you'll already know some of what to do. Practice your responses, making them second nature, so that you'll carry them out instinctively. Yet even still, some of it really is genetic (like the correlation between resilience and the size of one's amygdala). So the conclusions are about what you might expect, although it's not completely common sense. (For example, panicking as a response occurs much less frequently than simple paralysis.)

And there's more to the conclusions than common sense, or mistaken intuition, for sometimes there are occasional particularly perceptive observations. For example, the author perceptively notes the distrust that exists between those disaster victims (or would-be victims) and authorities (particularly in a democratic society), in both directions -- for example, the people who didn't believe warnings in advance of Hurricane Katrina to evacuate, or the officials who think that explaining the true extent of a danger will lead to a panic. (Or -- and Ripley didn't come up with this, although I'd be surprised if it never crossed her mind -- the fear among some politicians that in the midst of a mass shooting, having anyone but police carrying guns would inexorably lead to stray bullets and even greater injury, as the law-abiding carriers panicked.) She notes that to properly respect people, effective warnings must tell them why in addition to what, using airline safety instructions for putting on oxygen masks as an example. (Quick: why should you put on your own mask before helping anyone else?) And there are a few more bits beyond this (the brief discussion of SIDS particularly stands out in my mind), including some humor: for example, the wry conclusion that sharks might rarely attack humans, but humans are winning the war against sharks.

This isn't the deepest book around, but it's plenty entertaining. The anecdotes keep things moving along. And ultimately, simply being forced to consider all the issues the book raises will make you more prepared, should anything actually happen to you. A good read, if not one I'm likely to consult again more than sparingly. Three and a half stars, which I'll round to three for this book's being to a large extent common sense.
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,392 followers
March 31, 2009
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 tasks.

This book has made me acutely aware of my surroundings and my preparedness for any given disaster. It's a real wake up call that most of us are woefully unprepared. If the anecdotal evidence teaches us anything it's that those who survive are usually the people that possessed vital knowledge -- beforehand -- about what to do and seized the opportunity to drill for it over and over again. In the midst of a disaster, too much thinking can kill you. The time for thinking is before disaster strikes, not during. Know where your emergency exits are at all times in any given situation and become intimately familiar with them. Ask questions, demand answers, about what to do in any given disaster scenario. If you've already run over certain situations in your head, (or even better, in real training exercises), you'll be much more likely to respond quickly and effectively. The alternative is paralysis, delay, denial and if you act too late, death.
Profile Image for Jacob.
879 reviews48 followers
January 5, 2016
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. I can't wait to use that in an emergency ;)

There are lots of fascinating stories of both successes and failures in disaster, explanations of why certain behaviors are helpful and others are harmful, and lots of detail included. I especially liked the discussion of how people freeze up or simply fail to react, which I have always thought of as a kind of panic (but it is apparently different). I wished there were more about heroism. The author doesn't really find a good reason for it and then gets a bit disgusted with what you might call "pseudo-heroes", those who act like a hero but aren't. She also seems incredibly disappointed not to find an evolutionary story that would justify the existence of heroism. Other than that, it was an excellent book!

Profile Image for Lucy.
232 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2016
Writing is good. Content is lacking. Only read this if you are interested in disaster case stories.

There is nothing really eye-opening about this. Be prepared, don't stay in denial, have strong family connections which will motivate you to persevere, etc, etc Also that huge pure chance factor (people don't like to accept it & will search for ways people have screwed up when something bad happens to them, because they don't want to believe that freak horrible events could just happen).

Google the same topic and there are several news articles with the same content which you can read for free & in about 5 minutes or less.
Profile Image for Liz B.
1,685 reviews16 followers
January 7, 2020
Fascinating and convincing analysis of why we do what we do when a disaster comes--whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. The author makes a convincing case that we ordinary people should be better educated about what to do in an emergency situation.

The one crisis I've been in (and everything turned out to be ok, but we didn't know it at the time), I did exactly the right thing...and reading this book helped me to understand why. So here's what happened--I teach school and I was eating lunch in the staff room and the fire alarm went off. We stared at each other for a second, and someone said, "This has to be real. They would never do a drill during lunch." As a group, we left the staff room and saw that there was a lot of smoke in the locker area. My first thought was that something had happened in one of the science rooms. I don't know if someone actually said anything, but I remember someone saying that we needed to go help with the cafeteria evacuation. Two of my (young, very fit) colleagues took off running out the nearest exit and around the side of the building, and I did too (more slowly, and quickly switched to a quick walk because of my shoes). When I finally got around to the side of the building where the cafeteria was, my team teacher (one of the fast ones) and I worked to gather our 7th block class and figure out how to take attendance when we didn't have any rosters (or phones to access online rosters) with us.

It turned out that it wasn't a fire--what looked like smoke was actually chemicals from a fire extinguisher set off by a student. It was a while of being outside before we found out what was actually going on.

So why did it all go so well?

1. Drills. Even though we had never rehearsed a lunchtime drill, we drill ALL THE TIME in schools. We are always getting out through the closest safe exit and making sure we have all the kids. So in an unexpected situation, our natural response was to get out through the closest safe exit and make sure we had all the kids.
2. My role. My role as a teacher is to manage and protect the kids--part of my job has always been to be calm in crisis. On 9/11 we all kept teaching. Divide your mind and keep doing your job.
3. Faster reacting colleagues setting an example I wanted to follow. Denial and deliberation probably happened within 30 seconds before my 2 colleagues were sprinting out the door. It makes it easier to follow along. (I might have done some gathering had the smoke not been in the locker area...I really wanted to go and get my phone and purse from my classroom.)

While I never felt I was in immediate danger, I was definitely confused and worried. But it was relatively easy to set that aside and ACT because of the 3 reasons above...which pretty much exactly fits this author's analysis & advice.
Profile Image for Sarina M.
338 reviews21 followers
June 25, 2020
This was so great! So much information and brought up a lot of things to think about. Listened to the audio on a road trip and we loved it.

Things that were particularly interesting
- Panic is actually a rarer reaction to a disaster than most of us would expect (especially after watching movies where people are running around screaming). Governments and companies often withhold information from the public due to fear of mass panics, but actually people are much more likely to panic if they have less information, as feeling like you could be trapped and helpless is what brings on panic behavior. If people knew what was coming and had instructions for what to do they would more likely be calm. > The word 'panic' comes from the Greek God, Pan, who legend says waited in forests and made rustling noises as people walked by to scare them, and their reaction of running away was called 'panic'.
- A much more likely reaction (rather than panic) is a catatonic freezing of the body (which the body does in reaction to extreme fear as a evolutionary strategy. If a predator thinks you're dead or sick it might let you go as it doesn't want food poisoning, which makes sense as a last resort attempt - (nothing to lose anyway). In extreme circumstances people have reported feeling of being frozen, outside of their body, and having no pain (which would be nice if you're being mauled). I would have liked a bit more information of how to break out of this state, apart from waiting for someone to scream at you.
- Generally people get really calm and submissive during disasters, especially if there is someone there who is giving instructions. Moving quickly and fighting causes everyone to actually go slower, as there will be clogs. If everyone moves slowly everyone will get out more quickly. But in general during disasters people are often more generous and helpful than they are in everyday life, as our social mechanisms are still in place. People want to be in groups and stay in groups, so the 'every man for themselves' mentality is less likely. But knowing this, don't follow a group you know is doing something wrong (or at least speak up!)
- If your house is on fire and you're sleeping and wake up in a smokey room and stand up, you're likely to die of smoke inhalation. I suppose I knew that before but I didn't know it would happen so fast. Instead roll out of bed and crawl to the window. Always travel down. Don't grab stuff that isn't worth your life over.
- Emotions and instinct are incredibly useful tools that have been developed over time to ensure our survival. I tend to think "your being so emotional and irrational, think logically!", but actually emotions are a great tool to evaluate a new & unknown situation. Just don't go off emotions & instinct when you know facts that contradict those feelings.
- The best way to survive is to have a plan ahead of time (as brain functionality decreases during extreme fear). Make sure to know where the exits and stairs are (and where they lead), read & listen to the safety instructions, actually go through with the fire drill, have a 'go bag' ready in case of emergency. It is good to assess the risks that you are actually exposed to based on where you live and what you do. If you are scared of something that you are not at risk for, develop a plan for that too and that should help with the fear (but try to use logic and statistics to see what risks are actually likely to happen). If you don't have a plan already, make one and follow it immediately.
- Have a plan with your loved ones to not try and find each other before leaving a dangerous place, but meet in a safe place instead. Finding your family before evacuating (or worrying they are looking for you) could cause minutes that would create more risk for everyone.

Would love to get a copy to read and go this again sometime, do reinforce the information and highlight some sections!
Profile Image for Book.
725 reviews134 followers
October 24, 2014
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley

“The Unthinkable” is a captivating book that looks at what happens in the midst of disaster; it’s about the process of survival. Award-winning investigative journalist, Amanda Ripley combines a fascinating topic and engaging writing to produce a real gem. This enthralling 290-page book is broken out cleverly in three parts: 1. Denial, 2. Deliberation, and 3. The Decisive Moment.

1. High-quality book. It’s well-researched and well-written.
2. A fascinating topic that captures what goes on in the minds of those in the midst of a disaster.
3. It reads like an exciting action plot complemented nicely by sound science research.
4. I really liked Ripley’s approach. The book is structured cleverly to match the three phases of the survival arc: denial, deliberation and decisiveness. It flows beautifully and an excellent use of flashbacks to tease the readers to satisfactory insights. Fantastic!
5. One of the few books that in fact may help you survive a disaster. I loved the overall tone of the book; you don’t get a sense of dire but one of purpose and better understanding of why people react the way they do.
6. Every chapter highlights a disaster and proceeds to introduce the people involved and their state of minds as the disaster develops. “We worry about horrible things happening to us, but we don’t know much about what it actually feels like. I wondered what they had learned.”
7. This book succeeds because: Ripley has endless curiosity for the topic, conviction, applies sound logic backed by good science research, and great storytelling. In the author’s notes she discloses her sound methodology.
8. Great use of sound research. “Laughter—or silence—is a classic manifestation of denial, as is delay.”
9. Many facts shared throughout the book, “The fires caused by the 9/11 attacks were the deadliest in American history, killing 2,666 people.”
10. A very interesting look at risks and unintended consequences. “But something terrible happened in the name of common sense. In the two years after 9/11, an estimated 2,302 additional people were likely killed because they drove instead of flew, according to a 2006 study of road accidents in America by three Cornell University professors.”
11. Practical advice. “Warnings need to tell people what to do. Since people aren’t sure what action they should take in response to an Orange Alert for terrorism, the color codes are unsatisfying—like someone clinking a glass to give a toast and then standing there in silence.”
12. Great job of describing what happens to us during disasters, the physiology of fear. “This curious sense of aloofness, called ‘dissociation,’ can feel subtle. In a study of 115 police officers involved in serious shootings, 90 percent reported having some kind of dissociative symptom—from numbing to a loss of awareness to memory problems. At its most extreme, dissociation can take the form of an out-of-body experience.” Great stuff!
13. Understanding our brains. “The brain literally changes in structure and function throughout our lives, depending on what we do.”
14. Great stories throughout the book. The Dominican Republic embassy hostage situation in Columbia was fascinating because it was told from the perspective of the hostage and the hostage takers.
15. A look at resilience. “Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster.”
16. The role groupthink plays during disasters. “Groupthink, then, is the adaptive strategy of prioritizing group harmony. Dissent is uncomfortable for the group because it can be dangerous to the individual. Sometimes, when we appear to value the group ahead of our own skin, we are actually doing something else altogether.”
17. An excellent chapter on panic exemplified by a stampede. The three conditions of panic.
18. A chapter that my reveal to you what you would do in a disaster. “Many go on to experience extreme remorse because they think they simply surrendered to their attacker, Gallup has found. “They don’t realize that what they did may have been a very adaptive reaction.” Paralysis can also make prosecution of the rapist much more difficult, since the lack of struggle may look a lot like consent.”
19. Compelling arguments that resonate. “I told him that our behavior is almost always a product of our genetics and our experience.”
20. So what makes a hero, a rescuer? “Rescuers tended to have had healthier and closer relationships with their parents. They were also more likely to have had friends of different religions and classes. Their most important quality seemed to be empathy.”
21. Notes and formal bibliography provided.

1. Very little to criticize here but perhaps a lack of visual material such as charts, timetables or graphs may have added even more value to this fantastic book.
2. I’m being nitpicky but a where are they now appendix would have been icing on the cake. Ripley does such a great job of describing the people involved in these disasters that we as readers care about their well-being. I’m sure many readers would like to know how they are doing today. In many instances it is in fact part of the narrative as she describes them being interviewed and such.

In summary, as an avid reader of non-fiction you never know when you are going to find a gem that strikes all the right notes and this is such a book. It combines a fascinating topic such as what happens to people in the midst of disasters with scientific insights of why that is. It’s really a book on the science of how people react to disasters. Captivating! I highly recommend it!

Further recommendations: “The Smartest Kid in the World” by the same author, “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, “Survivor Personality” by Al Siebert, “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” by Jeff Wise, “Surviving the Extremes” by Kenneth Kamler, “Supersurvivors” by David B. Feldman, “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, “The Tell-Tale Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran, and “Incognito” by David Eagleman.
Profile Image for Elliot.
324 reviews
December 16, 2018
A fascinating look into how people react in disasters and crises. If you've never lived through a disaster or crisis of this kind and would like to prepare yourself to understand what might happen and how you and others might react I recommend this book highly. If you have lived through things like this and know how you react, then this is a fascinating look into why that might be and how others around you might react and why.

Unfortunately in my life I've had a handful of situations where horrible things happened around me that gave me the opportunity to learn how I react, and while I'm happy that my automatic reactions in those situations was extremely fast and productive (and indeed saved at least one life), they also showed me how many other people react in completely counter-intuitive and even counter-productive ways. This book makes those reactions seem more understandable, and gave me insights into how it might be possible to get those kinds of people to be more helpful in the future. Having the right reactions in disasters and crises, during intense pressure and stress, saves lives. Reading this book might just save yours or that of someone near you.

I was slightly horrified by how many times my reaction to the author's rhetorical questions that were meant to show how counter-intuitive people act actually showed how brutally logic-based I am. Things like "how much time do you spend worrying about X compared to Y or Z" when in X is supposed to be something people find scary and worry about, while Y or Z kill or injure far more people. I don't worry about X, and am very careful about Y and Z.
Profile Image for Lenny Husen.
904 reviews19 followers
June 1, 2020
Amazing. 5 stars, perfectly (and I do not use this adjective often) narrated by Kirsten Potter; very well written. Recommend basically for everyone I know since this was the perfect audio book--entertaining, riveting, educational, makes you a better person for having this information.
Kudos to my cousin Marnie for suggesting this to me.
The book is about Disasters--mainly 9/11, Airplane Crashes, Fires and Floods (Katrina)--and is actually upbeat for such a serious subject--it discusses Survivors and why they survived. The author dwells for a long time on exactly what part of Survival is NOT due to Luck.
I do believe this book should be part of every high school and colleage curriculum, because it does teach human psychology and behavior during Disasters and there are significant DO NOTs.
It challenges the Reader to think about his/her Disaster Personality and what that might be like.
The Three Stages of Reaction to a sudden Crisis--Denial, Deliberation, Decisive Action--are discussed in depth.

I forced my husband to listen to this book on a recent trip and his criticism was, "This isn't exactly a day brightener" and it did make him a little anxious at times especially when he was driving--but it was a much better book to hear together than any other I can think of--although next time I will choose a James Rollins read by Christian Baskous--just because my husband was such a good sport he deserves something super fun.
(My husband did end up getting into Unthinkable and has decided his Disaster Personality is to let me take charge).

Seriously if you listen or read one book in 2020--it should be this one.
May 26, 2022
I don’t think the author truly answered the question that is the subtitle of this book. (Mostly, I believe this is because there is a lot of unpredictability involved)

Instead, she walked through her proposed stages of disaster response: denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. She describes “disaster personalities” in a way that I might uncharitably call pop psychology. It’s an attempt to distill research into easily comprehended ideas, with plenty of anecdotes added for emphasis. But what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in style. It’s an interesting and engaging book, and you just might learn something that could be useful someday. Or maybe not, but I found it fairly compelling anyway.
Profile Image for Casey.
546 reviews23 followers
May 8, 2019
Fascinating! Got me thinking how I'd react in an emergency. Freeze? Not a chance! Panic? No way! Risk my life to help others? Hmm... depends. Do everything I can to get the hell out? YES! I'm a survivor. But the truth is, you don't really know till you're faced with it. This book gave me a lot to think about. And the real-life stories were riveting.

Sometimes the heroes are those you'd least expect. Like in that documentary about the cruise ship that went down. When the first responders arrived, they questioned the main rescuer (and this is paraphrasing): "What's your rank, sir?" "Uh... rank?" "Yes. Officer, or what?" "Um... er... I'm the guitar player in the band." Love it!
Profile Image for Molly.
270 reviews4 followers
January 30, 2022
This was an excellent book - well written, with fascinating anecdotes/reporting - and should be a must-read book for individuals to learn how the brain reacts during disaster. Much of this was new information to me, and I feel slightly better armed with this knowledge should I face an emergency situation. My great-grandfather survived the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903 in Chicago (with a subsequent surgical plate in his head after someone panicked and pushed the ladder that he and others were using as a bridge across the alley to another building); otherwise I would not be here reading this book, so it was even more personally interesting to me. But I think it would be compelling reading to most everyone.
Profile Image for Mike.
70 reviews1 follower
January 19, 2018
Interesting book. Highly recommended. You will never, ever get on a airplane, boat, stay in a hotel, go to a major entertainment event without reading, following and practicing safety and evacuation procedures. It is literally the difference between life and death.
Profile Image for Lisa Filipczak.
297 reviews2 followers
March 17, 2019
It's probably due to my profession that I thought this book was so interesting but I really enjoyed it. Ripley put together an excellent book about how and why people react during emergencies. I learned a lot and the content will stay with me.
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