5 Beliefs About Surviving a Disaster (That Can Kill You)

If you read the news, you'll know that humans are constantly running into things that put their lives in danger: crime, natural disasters, ill-advised riding-mower volleyball games. Despite this, most of us remain in blissful denial about how we'll react during terrible, life-threatening events. For example ...

(If you think Hollywood has prepared you to survive a gunfight, you need to read our De-Textbook.)

#5. We Think We'll Know What to Do

Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Reports of a shocking event are working their way through the mass media. Victims are being buried. Families are mourning their loved ones. And like urine spreading through a crowded kiddie pool, the comment sections of the Internet are filling up with observations like this one, about a shooting in Colorado:


Here's another Internet sage, talking about a different shooting:


Now, I'm willing to bet most of us would never write anything like that, because we are not boss-level douchebags. But surveys show that most people do believe that they'd do just fine during a crisis situation, even if they have no training or experience whatsoever. This means that even though we're not spewing our assurances all over the Internet, many of us are still unconsciously assuming that all those people on the news suffered and/or died because they just aren't as naturally smart and awesome as we are.

And you can't really blame us for thinking that, because ...

#4. Movies Have Given Us Terrible Expectations

Warner Bros.

In The Dark Knight, sassy lawyer and love interest Rachel Dawes is thrown out of a tall building by the Joker, and then saved at the last second by Batman, who swoops in and rescues her with a batcape capable of cancelling the effects of g-force deceleration. Rachel's reaction, after facing certain death only seconds before? She looks at Batman like they have just finished a mildly uncomfortable sex act and says, "Let's not do that again!" In the same movie, fellow lawyer Harvey Dent is in the middle of a court case when a witness on the stand points a gun at him and pulls the trigger. When it misfires, Dent smoothly grabs the weapon and quips about buying American. Never mind that these characters are acting as if they are suffering from severely damaged amygdalae: They're the good guys (at least for now), and that means that they don't experience fear.

Warner Bros.
Either that, or it's telling us that lawyers don't have souls.

This is not a freak example: Find a random scene from a movie that shows any sort of crisis, and chances are you can pick out the hero by looking for the person who isn't panicking. It's the calm, nerdy heroines that survive the carnage in horror movies, while their panic-stricken friends go running into chainsaw blades. It's Bruce Willis or Sigourney Weaver who stare witheringly at their sobbing beta-male companions before taking charge, saving the day, and dying the hardest. Movies teach us that heroes -- whether they're trained cops, plucky teenagers, or middle-aged housewives -- respond to mortal danger with calm wisecracking. And because we all want to think that we're the protagonists in our own movies, we expect that we'll naturally react like that as well.

Unfortunately, in real life ...

#3. Our Brains Won't Work the Way We Think They Will

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

Our expectations are based on the assumption that, in a survival situation, our brain won't work that differently than it does when we're going about our daily life watching our cats ride around on Roombas. Sure, maybe we'll get a bit scared, but we will overcome it and deal, just like we did when the Roomba almost fell down the stairs with Meow Zedong on it. But the truth is that when you're hurtling down the Mortal Danger Expressway into Oh Fuck Central, you're not just dealing with being scared. You're dealing with your brain trying to turn you into a dumb, screaming, pants-staining animal.

Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Above: You.

As soon as you perceive that you're in mortal danger, your brain will start shutting down its higher functions so that it can devote more energy to tasks like "running the hell away." This means that you might have trouble processing even simple information, such as spoken commands like "Hey, don't go that way, there's even more bears down there" or "Stop it! The bears hate it when you slap them!" In fact, during times of extreme fear your brain can stop taking in any auditory information at all. Plane-crash investigations have discovered recordings of pilots ignoring warning announcements telling them exactly what is wrong with a crashing plane and how to fix it: At that level of stress, the pilots physically could not hear the warnings.

And it gets worse. When your brain kicks into panic mode, you can become super sensitive to visual stimuli, so that you start noticing things you previously would have ignored, pre-panic. These sudden visual superpowers might seem like a good thing, until you imagine trying to find your way out of a burning building when your brain is literally showing you an entirely different environment than the one you're familiar with.

blyjak/iStock/Getty Images
"I don't remember that tree shaped like a dildo before. Fuck, I'm going the wrong way."

Movies also don't teach us that ...

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C. Coville

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