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.)
We Think We'll Know What to Do
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 ...
Movies Have Given Us Terrible Expectations
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.
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 ...
Our Brains Won't Work the Way We Think They Will
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.
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.
"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 ...
Our Instinctual Behavior Will Fuck With Us
Our brains might turn us into drunken rodeo clowns when things get bad, but that's just the beginning. Thanks either to evolutionary glitches or the will of Satan, human bodies also come equipped with a range of "survival instincts" that will kill you off quicker than a nuclear weapon covered in ebola.
Good luck finding a hand-washing station now.
Take drowning, for example. Movies and television have long taught us that drowning people behave pretty rationally: They wave their arms around, shout "HELP," and generally try to attract the attention of the nearest or sexiest lifeguard. But in real life, a person who is about to be issued Davy Jones' locker combination will display a far less dramatic set of movements known as the "instinctive drowning response." Their arms will flap downwards in an attempt to keep their mouth above the water's surface, and their vocal cords will be suppressed. That's right, a drowning person cannot make any noise. In fact, it's not uncommon for swimmers to ignore people who are drowning a few yards away, because everyone expects drowning people to act like sensible human beings, not flail around silently like they're embarrassed by their awkward doggy paddle.
Behind this woman, the pool filter is slowly clogging with a giant pile of corpses.
And that's just one of the ways our instincts can kick us in the neck when things go wrong. People who have frozen to death are often found undressed, because our body's reaction to severe hypothermia can make us feel uncomfortably warm. Panicking divers have been known to remove their mouthpieces underwater, believing that getting rid of that pesky blockage will help them breathe better. In other words, the face of a human being in mortal danger is less "stoic action hero" and more "raving, incompetent naked person."
Only some of us can be both.
When Our Brains Are Working, That Can Make Things Worse
A Canadian researcher studying the behavior of people who survived getting lost in an inhospitable environment (otherwise known as "Canada") discovered that one of the best things you can do to aid your own survival is to be a child under 6. This is not because Canadian rescue teams are only interested in people who can critique their Dora the Explorer fan fiction but because these protohumans who have barely grasped how to poop properly apparently exhibit more sensible survival behavior than a lot of adults.
Why? Well, imagine yourself as a 6-year-old, lost in the freezing Canadian wild. If you get cold, you're probably going to stop, curl up inside the nearest place that looks warm, and stay there until you get rescued 12 hours later. But what do most adults do in the same situation? They start thinking like this: "Fuck, I'm lost. Better retrace my steps. Or should I follow a stream? Or head north? Gotta do something! Come on Joe, you can do this."
Tragically, Joe was later found living in Alaska.
We grown-ups are always "fixing" awful situations by choosing actions that make things much worse. We leave our cars when we're stranded in deserts or snowstorms, even though we're usually much safer staying with them. We wander off-trail on hiking trips, because we think we're smart enough to find our way back. We decide to go and try to reason with that mountain lion. We want to feel like we're smart and in control and doing something, because that's less scary than admitting that we don't know what the hell we're doing. Which is why pretty much every outdoor-survival course on Earth will tell you that when you're lost in the outdoors, the first thing to do is to stop, stay still, and build yourself a fire. The purpose isn't just to keep yourself warm, or piss off Smokey the Bear: It's to give you a chance to calm down and consider your actions before you launch any "clever" plans that might kill you.
Note: this advice does not work quite as well when you are escaping a burning building.
As for handling other kinds of crappy situations, experts tell us that the people who do best are those who have experienced similar danger in the past, whether through drills and training courses or through plain bad luck. So if your first survival situation goes badly, but you do manage to get through it alive, just mop up the spilled bodily fluids and tell yourself that you'll do better at it next time.
Survival: It's a lot like being an awkward person in college.
C. Coville's Twitter is here.