Monday, February 11, 2013

The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-- And Why by Amanda Ripley

I borrowed a hardcover copy from the public library.

My review:

I placed a hold on this book thinking that it would be sort of a worst-case scenario survival manual for getting out of terrorist attacks and active shooter situations and the like. That's not really what this book is. Instead of chapters like "How to Survive a Plane Crash," The Unthinkable has chapters like "Fear: The Body and Mind of a Hostage." It's much more akin to Brain Rules by John Medina than to the US Army Survival Manual (though I haven't read that one yet).

Amanda Ripley has covered many disasters as a journalist for Time magazine, and here she brings her investigative reporting skills to the science and psychology of the human response to crisis situations. She's a good writer, and the book manages to be entertaining and optimistic even while it describes truly horrific and tragic deaths-- most of which, as she discovered, never actually needed to happen. She investigates why a sensible New Orleans resident with sufficient resources to get to safety would refuse to evacuate before Katrina. Why do people get trampled to death by the crowd on a hajj? Why do so many people die trying to get out of crashed airplanes when simulation models consistently show that there should have been plenty of time?

Ripley posits that with just a little mental preparation, anyone can significantly boost their odds of surviving a disaster. The conclusion section actually does tie all of the lessons of the book together into some very concrete and yet broadly-applicable suggestions, so those reading the books in hopes of "do this and live" checklists won't be entirely disappointed. It is written for a popular audience by a journalist, so take some of her pat conclusions with a grain of salt, but overall, her arguments were compelling.

The Unthinkable was a book that kept me reading, kept me interested, and also gave me a little more optimism about keeping myself alive if it should ever come to that. I highly recommend it for anyone with a passing interest in the human brain who has ever thought about just how they'd respond under extreme pressure.

Stars: 4

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