In a catastrophic event, most people fail to do the one thing that would save their life.
John Leach, a military survival instructor who researches behaviour in extreme environments at the University of Portsmouth, has studied the actions of survivors and victims from dozens of disasters around the world over several decades (and as it happens he was present at one of them, the fire at King’s Cross underground station on 18 November 1987 which killed 31 people).
He has found that in life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered by the situation that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: they freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.
Stories about survival often focus on the 15%, and what is so special about them that helps them stay alive. But Leach thinks this is the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking, why do so many people die when they need not, when they have the physical means to save themselves? In most disaster scenarios, he says, you don’t need special skills to survive. You just need to know what you should do.
We haven’t always had a clear picture of what people really do in emergencies. Yet as cases in recent decades began to show, the real challenge is getting people to move quickly enough. On 22 August 1985, 55 people died in a Boeing 737 on the runway at Manchester Airport in the UK after the plane suffered engine failure during take-off. The government’s Air Accident Investigations Branch reported: “Perhaps the most striking feature of this accident was the fact that although the aircraft never became airborne and was brought to a halt in a position which allowed an extremely rapid fire-service attack on the external fire, it resulted in 55 deaths.”
Rather than madness, or an animalistic stampede for the exits, it is often people’s disinclination to panic that puts them at higher risk.
The prevailing psychological explanation for these kinds of behaviours – passivity, mental paralysis or simply carrying on as normal in the face of a crisis – is that they are caused by a failure to adapt to a sudden change in the environment. Survival involves goal-directed behaviour: you feel hungry, you look for food; you feel isolated, you seek companionship. Normally, this is straightforward (we know how to find food or companions). But in a new, unfamiliar environment, particularly a stressful one such as a sinking ship or a burning aircraft, establishing survival goals – where the exit is and how to get to it – requires a lot more conscious effort.
“In emergencies, quite often events are happening faster than you can process them,” explains Leach. The situation outruns our capacity to think our way out of it.
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This explains why in emergencies people often fail to do things that under normal circumstances would seem obvious. So the only reliable way to shortcut this kind of impaired thinking, most survival experts agree, is by preparing for an emergency in advance.
Commentators often highlight the supposed stupidity or madness of crowds during disasters – a stampede of pilgrims, the crush of a football crowd, the blind scramble for the exits in a burning nightclub. In reality, this is rarely what happens. “In emergencies, the norm is cooperation,” says Chris Cocking, who studies crowd behaviour at the University of Brighton. “Selfish behaviour is very mild and tends to be policed by the crowd rather than spreading.”