Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- And Why, by Amanda Ripley. Crown Publishers, 2008. 266 pp. 978-0-307-35289-7.

... in which we learn about the group psychology of disaster situations.

I found this book in a pile of bargain books at Borders, and as it was cheap and on a topic I'd never studied, I decided to buy it. I'm a little surprised that it ended up in the bargain book section after only being released in 2008.

The book covers the psychology, both individual and group, of people who are caught in disastrous or highly dangerous situations. The majority of the situations were man-made, ie, more situations caused by human error or violence, and fewer situations caused by earthquakes, etc. We learn about the thought processes and physical reactions that different people have to crisis situations, and we also learn how these processes affect the survival probability of an individual. For example, someone like a Marine or Navy SEAL or another person trained to operate under extreme pressure might be physiologically different than your average Joe who might freeze or panic under similar situations.

The author, a writer for Time magazine, did a very admirable job of tracking down survivors of these situations. The interviews given by the survivors were really the key part of the book, but also added to the vague sense of voyeurism lurking in the background. The author herself admits to feeling a bit like a voyeur as well when she was conducting the interviews. For example, we all know the timeline of what happened on 9/11, and we all remember the footage of the towers collapsing, but you don't often hear an account of what it was like to be in one of the towers as events were unfolding. I was morbidly fascinated by the first-hand accounts of the emotions and thoughts of people who were inside the tower. One survivor described feeling an irresistible impulse to return to her desk to fetch her purse, because the whole situation felt so unreal to her.

In addition to reading about how the individual behaves in a situation like that, reading about the group behavior was also interesting, but in an unsettling way. For instance, Ripley writes about some cases where people died at IKEA openings in Saudi Arabia and England. Crowds rushed forward and emotions were running high, and people ended up being trampled, beaten, or worse.

For the most part, I found this an interesting read. The quotes from experts on disaster management, psychology, etc really enhanced the book. However, the whole thing kind of left me feeling a little depressed... mostly because a lot of the problems that occur during a crisis could probably have been avoided. For instance, if anyone in the World Trade Center had been told a) where the stairs are and b) how to behave in an evacuation, how many more people might have made it out? I also gained a pretty healthy respect for police, emergency medical staff, security officials, etc.

4/5 stars

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