Survival is less about heroic actions than avoiding mindless mistakes.
“I’ll never forget the sound. The sound of metal crunching,” says George Larson, a passenger on Indian Airlines Flight 440 from Chennai (Madras) to New Delhi in 1973. It was 22:30 – pitch black outside. A storm was raging, and the plane was flying low. The rear end slammed into the ground first. Larson was thrown from his seat.
The next thing Larson knew he was awake, lying on his back on some wreckage. He tried to move his legs, but he was stuck. Soon there was an explosion as the heat ignited fuel tanks by the wings. As debris rained down all around him, Larson realised he’d have to save himself. With one last breath – “it seared my lungs, the air was so hot” – he pushed off the wreckage and rolled down onto the ground. Then he clawed his way to safety. Of 65 passengers and crew on board, Larson was one of just 17 survivors.
Surprisingly, plenty of other people in deadly scenarios don’t act fast enough to save their own lives. From arguing over small change while a ship sinks into stormy water, to standing idly on the beach as a tsunami approaches, psychologists have known for years that people make self-destructive decisions under pressure. Though news reports tend to focus on miraculous survival, if people escape with their lives it’s often despite their actions – not because of them.
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“Survival training isn’t so much about training people what to do – you’re mostly training them not to do certain things that they would normally think to do,” says John Leach, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth who survived the King’s Cross fire disaster in 1987. He estimates that in a crisis, 80-90% of people respond inappropriately.
So, if faced with a life-threatening scenario, what behaviours should you do your best to avoid?
During the recent stabbing at London Bridge, an off-duty police officer who tackled the attackers reportedly described members of the public nearby as standing “like deers in the headlights”.
The reaction is so universal, psychologists now talk of the fight-flight-freeze response.
Though it looks passive from the outside, when we’re paralysed with fear the brain is actively putting on the brakes. As adrenaline surges through the body and our muscles tense, the primitive “little brain” at the base of our necks sends a signal to keep us rooted to the spot. It’s the same mechanism across the animal kingdom, from rats to rabbits, where it’s a last-ditch attempt to stop a predator from spotting us. But in a disaster, fighting this hangover from our days out on the savannah is vital to survival.
2. INABILITY TO THINK
The first clues that our brains tend to go into meltdown under stress came from an alarming discovery.
Even at the best of times, our brains are disconcertingly slow – while disasters are rapid. As part of the certification process, aeroplane manufacturers are required to show that the entire plane can be evacuated in just 90 seconds, since studies have shown that the risk of the cabin being consumed by fire sharply increases after this time. Meanwhile, most of us are still fumbling with our seatbelts.
3. TUNNEL VISION
In a crisis, it’s reassuring to think that we’d respond by creatively thinking our way around the problem. But – you guessed it, it’s the opposite. A typical response to disaster is so-called “perseveration” – attempting to solve a problem in a single way, again and again and again, regardless of the results. This happens so often, it’s informed the design of seatbelts in light aircraft.
Because people are used to looking for their seatbelts around their hips, in an emergency that’s the only place they look. Previous designs used to involve a buckle higher up, but in the panic of a crash-landing, people just couldn’t handle it. Other incidents have shown that in a crisis, pilots tend to become obsessed with one item of equipment or response.
Intriguingly, this tunnel vision is also seen in those who have permanently damaged their prefrontal cortex, suggesting that the brain’s stress response switching off this region might be to blame for inflexible thinking in moments of crisis.