The Reading Room

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why

Amanda Ripley

Published: 2009, Harmony

When a disaster strikes, such as a fire, terrorist attack, tsunami, or hurricane, thousands of people lose their lives. However, some people are able to survive. In this book, the author explores various disasters and interviews the survivors to understand what they went through and what made them survive while others couldn’t. The book provides incredible insights into the human psyche during a disaster and offers lessons on how to become better survivors. The book is structured around the three chronological phases of survival: denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. These phases are common to all kinds of disasters, and the author draws on past disasters to explain them. The book takes the reader on a journey from danger to safety, exploring the psychological challenges that people face during each phase.

Denial: Except in extremely dire cases, we tend to display a surprisingly creative and wilful brand of denial. This denial can take the form of delay, which can be fatal, as it was for some on World Trade Centre 9/11 terror attacks. On average, Trade Centre survivors waited six minutes before heading downstairs, some waited as long as forty-five minutes.

Deliberation: Once we get through the initial shock of the denial phase, we move into deliberation, the second phase of the survival arc. We know something is wrong, but we don’t know what to do about it. How do we decide? We consult with each other during a process called “milling”. How and with whom you mill can dramatically influence your chances of survival.

Decisive Moment: Finally, we reach the third phase of the survival arc: the decisive moment. We’ve accepted that we are in danger; we’ve deliberated our options. Now we take action. In the best-case scenario, we take action in a fairly rational, effective fashion. However, if we fail to take action we either Panic or Freeze both could be fatal. People panic when they are trapped, feel helpless or feel isolated. Scuba divers panic by ripping out their air supply deep underwater due to the intense feeling of suffocation when their noses are covered which is fatal. While some Freeze and do nothing. Flight attendants are now trained to yell at passengers during evacuation to stop them from freezing.

Finally, how can we become better survivors?

Experience; Disaster survivors are better equipped for future events. For the inexperienced, we can train our subconscious to cope with disasters. Memorizing emergency exits can reduce the negative impact of the fear response.

Training: Simple rule of human nature, the core lesson of this book: the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand and so not only regular fire drills but surprise fire drills are even more important.

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.

Avoiding Overconfidence and Considering Warnings: When it comes to old-fashioned risks like weather, we often overestimate ourselves. Of the fifty-two people who died during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, for example, 70% drowned. Most of them drowned in their cars, which had become trapped in floodwaters. This is a recurring problem in hurricanes. People are overconfident about driving through water, even though they are bombarded with official warnings not to.

Clear and easy-to-follow Instructions: On 9/11; Fire drills were held twice a year, but the Trade Centre’s definition of a fire drill was to ask everyone to gather in the middle of their floors and pick up an emergency phone to obtain directions. Employees did not generally go into the stairwells, let alone down them. The key is to keep the instructions clear and very easy to follow so that everyone remembers them even when a disaster strikes.

How can regular people improve their risk perception? After 9/11, many thousands of Americans decided to drive instead of fly. 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 flying, In reality, even after 9/11, driving remained much, much more dangerous than flying. So for regular people to improve their risk perception the next time you hear about something that scares you, look for data. Be suspicious of absolute numbers—or no numbers at all. Understand the risk and be well prepared; Mileti, America’s foremost expert on hazards, understands the risk of an earthquake and is well prepared. Unlike 86% of Californians, he has earthquake insurance, several days’ worth of supplies, and has stashed his savings in the bank instead of paying off his house. This way, he’ll have cash if he needs it. He isn’t in denial and has made an informed gamble. He fully expects a mega earthquake to occur one day, but until then, he gets to live in Palm Springs, California.

As disasters are becoming more frequent, we must focus on becoming better survivors instead of relying solely on luck. To achieve this, we need to be proactive and train ourselves to identify potential risks and learn how to survive in those situations. This book has been a valuable resource for me as it has prompted me to think about disasters that I had never considered before. I will make a conscious effort to train myself both mentally and physically to become a better survivor.

Shahil Shah
February 2024

The information contained above and in other entries in the Ocean Dial Book Review Series is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only, and should not be relied upon in making, or refraining from making, any investment decisions. No information provided herein should or can be taken to constitute any form of advice or recommendation as to the merits of any investment decision. You should take independent advice from a suitably qualified investment adviser before making any investment decisions.

Investing: The Last Liberal Art

Robert G. Hagstrom

Published: 2013, Columbia Business School Publishing

Robert G. Hagstrom is one of the best-known authors of investment books for general audiences. In this book, he explores basic and fundamental investing concepts in a range of fields outside of economics, including physics, biology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and literature.

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What I Learned about Investing from Darwin

Pulak Prasad

Published: 2023, Columbia University Press

Pulak Prasad offers a philosophy of patient long-term investing based on an unexpected source: evolutionary biology. He draws key lessons from core Darwinian concepts, mixing vivid examples from the natural world with compelling stories of good and bad investing decisions—including his own

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A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65

David Kynaston

Published: 2023, Bloomsbury Publishing

A Northern Wind brings to vivid life the period between October 1962 and February 1965 in Britain. With masterful storytelling refreshing familiar events, this reveals in all their variety, the experiences of the people living through this history.

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