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Healthline Connects

What Would YOU Do in a Disaster?


Amanda Riley, author of The Unthinkable, and reporter for TIME has dedicated her career to understanding how humans respond to disasters and how to improve our chances of surviving a disaster by changing our behavior. Ripley's investigations of how humans respond to disasters like the WTC collapses or the New Orleans floods have yielded surprising results - most humans become docile in the face of catastrophe. She finds that we humans move slowly and become kinder to one another as if walking in a dream.

Ripley has interviewed researchers around the world who have learned that since most people live their entire lives without facing disaster, when catastrophe strikes, they are stunned into a state of disbelief. "
This can't be happening to me," which makes responses slow and apparently overrides the "fight or flight" response one would think would kick in. When given clear orders to evacuate, most people engage in a behavior called milling - gathering the opinions of at least three other sources before actually following the instructions to leave. Women respond more quickly than men do.

The weird thing is that people have been found to have a different "disaster personality" from their everyday persona. The commanding business leader may be the person who freaks out and obstructs the evacuation process. A neurotic worrier may become a calm leader. Only 15% of people actually remain calm and respond efficiently to true disasters, another 15% might freak out and hinder the process, while the remaining 70% of people do next to nothing simply because they are confused and dazed. Survivors of disasters report feeling like "a zombie". They report witnessing others die simply because they were unable to move.

Psychologists call this process of shutting down in the face of danger "freezing behavior". Rape victims have reported similar behavior and it may be a primitive survival instinct since many predators will not eat prey that does not struggle. To increase your chances of surviving any situation, Ripley recommends always familiarizing yourself with exits and mentally preparing an exit strategy. The sad truth is, people behave like goats, expecting to be led and told what to do. To increase your chances of surviving the unexpected, mentally prepare yourself to make decisions, fend for yourself and lead your loved ones to safety.


Thank you Rendy Maulauna for use of photo Tsunami Victims Evacuation, Bali.
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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