How well would you cope in a disaster? Performance in extreme situations…

You probably think you’d cope well in a disaster right? In fact, whether it’s their imagined reaction to a car accident, a bushfire, or a medical emergency, most people think they’d deal with it pretty well. Actually, most people think they’d deal with it better than most other people. You and they are wrong, of course.


Let’s just say that some people, less than one in 10, deal well in most disaster situations. These 10% are more likely to take effective action, like actually getting away or helping others, than the rest of us. About another one in 10 don’t cope at all and fall completely to pieces (these people are much more likely to go on to experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later on). The other 80% of us tend to do nothing – we don’t react, we don’t behave heroically, we don’t even call the emergency services. We just pretend that nothing’s happening.

To try to explain both our overestimation of our abilities, and our actual inability in disaster situations, we need to look to the psychology of evolution. Let me start this by saying that although evolutionary psychology is interesting, it’s largely untestable so, despite providing some great theories, these theories tend to remain just that (i.e., we can’t be sure if they’re actually correct). Anyway, moving on. First, humans are really good at overestimating their likelihood of success a priori, and equally good at underestimating the actual risks inherent in a given situation. Our overestimation of ability is known as the Dunning Kruger effect (see here); essentially, the less experience someone has of a situation, the more he or she is likely to overestimate his or her ability to do well in that situation. Vice versa, experts in a field understand that it took them a long time to develop their expertise, and appreciate how much more they still have to learn. Because it takes only a relatively small amount of time to progress from beginner to amateur (in pretty much any endeavour), most amateurs fall victim to two delusions. First, that because they’re better at what they do than most beginners, they’re already expert, or (second) because it only took a short period of time to progress to amateur level, expertise must also be only a short step away. In reality, the gap between amateur ability and expertise is substantially greater than it is between beginner and amateur. Nevertheless, because they don’t know that much about what they’re doing, and have never actually compared their abilities to real experts, amateurs often think they’ve reached or are close to reaching the top of their game. This phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining how ‘armchair athletes’ are very happy to criticise real athletes for perceived poor performance. It also explains why we overestimate our ability in something we don’t know much about (like reactions in a disaster). The Dunning Kruger effect explains why everyone thinks they’re a better driver, smarter, better dressed, funnier, or more competent than those around them. Of course, statistically, it’s impossible for everyone to be better than everyone else – most of us, by statistical definition, are average, and half of us will be below average!

How is this behaviour potentially evolution-based? Probably because we evolved in tribal societies, and overestimating our abilities increased the likelihood of us challenging for greater status in the tribe. This in turn increased the likelihood of passing on genes, selecting over time for this characteristic. Maybe.

OK – second point about humans: we underplay (or downplay) the risks associated with an event a priori. This means that we’re more likely to assume that we’ll be OK because we believe that the risks associated with an event will be much lower than they actually are. This delusion feeds off the Dunning Kruger effect: we overplay our abilities and simultaneously underplay the likelihood of actual danger. It also makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Imagine your ancestors lived near a tree that produced a particularly nutritious and delicious fruit, but the tree was very tall and it wasn’t possible to tell, from the ground, whether the fruit was there. Those that underplayed the risk of the climb (and survived it) got the fruit and were better nourished, hence passing on their genes and selecting for risk taking. Again, maybe.

Third point about humans: we suffer from a phenomenon known as normalcy bias. This means that we expect that things will be normal, and simply refuse to acknowledge events that don’t fit that bias. Worse, when we get information that doesn’t fit our idea of normalcy, we tend to become overwhelmed and, instead of taking action, search for information that confirms our idea of normality. Consequently, people will attempt to sustain normalcy even when, for example, a bushfire is coming toward them. Instead of evacuating immediately, they seek out information about what’s going on, and go with the source that sustains the illusion of normalcy (usually the one source that isn’t accurate).

Fourth, humans are crap at predicting their future behaviour. As a species we’re all vulnerable to believing that our future selves will deal with a situation better than our current self. This is why we procrastinate, or write lists for ourselves to do later, or underprepare. We simply assume that by the time we get around to it, we’ll somehow be smarter, more motivated, and more inclined to do the thing we’d previously decided was too unpleasant or too hard. Of course, when we actually become our future self we have no idea what we were thinking, and then repeat the mistake by bumping it on to our future self again!

We’re also, as a species, statistically illiterate. We simply can’t gauge the odds of success, and will pretty much always skew them in our favour (bizarrely this also counts for people who have studied statistics; unless they’re paying careful attention they’re brains will bullshit them). Combined, these five deficits explain why we buy lottery tickets (even if we’re aware that the odds of being hit by lightning twice on our way from buying the ticket to our car are greater than winning), don’t study for exams or job interviews, drive drunk, don’t evacuate in the face of danger, are often paralysed when things go wrong, and don’t prepare for disasters in advance.

So who does do well in a disaster? I mentioned before that about one in 10 people cope well: they are more likely to take useful action, help others, remove themselves from danger and, of course, survive. They’re also less likely to be traumatised by the event. It turns out that these people aren’t born this way, they’ve simply trained themselves to function. For most of us, our combination of human flaws, all of which might have fostered an evolutionary advantage in the past, reduces our ability to function in situations of extreme pressure. Likewise, for those of you who read my blog last week, you’ll also understand that, when faced with extreme pressure, nearly all of us go into fight or flight mode, resulting in reduced prefrontal cortex activity and a resultant temporary loss in our ability to make executive decisions.

As I pointed out last week, performance under pressure comes from being able to function alongside unpleasant or distracting thoughts and feelings. People who respond well in disasters are just as likely as the rest of us to feel scared, bit instead of sitting there, paying attention to their fear, and then underplaying the likelihood of disaster and overplaying the odds of survival, they take action. Similarly, because they’ve trained around disasters, they’re closer to ‘expert’ and less likely to fall victim to the Dunning Kruger effect. In other words, those that survive have prior experience with the situation (or one like it) and, therefore, a pretty good idea of what’s likely to happen and an accurate gauge of the odds of survival. They also recognise that, even though they might be terrified, it’s worth taking action.

Generally, these survivors have specific training in disaster management. They’re emergency personnel, emergency room clinicians, flight crew or military personnel. Nevertheless, there’s a good reason why most organisations and schools have fire drills. When we train for something a priori, it’s much easier to act in situ. The problem is that most people don’t pay attention to this sort of training. Fire drills become an excuse to goof off. Instead of carefully noting the escape route, and observing the things that could go wrong, most people treat it as a break from work or a chance to socialise (or just an inconvenience), so they don’t pay attention.

So, here’s the deal. Odds are you will not perform well in a disaster. You will probably freeze, look for normalcy, underestimate the odds of danger, and overestimate the likelihood that your actions will be successful. Worse, because you believe that you will perform well, you won’t prepare in advance. To overcome these issues, and to increase your odds of survival especially if you live in a disaster-prone area (e.g., bushfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.), figure out what the odds of danger really are, and then actually prepare for action. If necessary, stock up on food and water supplies, map out an escape route with clear backups (and drive or walk them repeatedly so they’re familiar), have a torch ready with spare batteries, figure out at what point you’ll evacuate no matter what your brain (or other people) is telling you at the time. It might just save your life…

One Reply to “How well would you cope in a disaster? Performance in extreme situations…”

  1. By the way – all these factors contribute to other impending disasters, like the collapse of the biosphere, and the antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’ that will make antibiotics useless within about 10 years. Politicians fall victim the the Dunning Kruger effect, assuming they are experts, we underplay the risks and overestimate our ability to solve problems, and also assume that in the future we’ll solve these problems. Unless we do something about it now, we’re screwed…

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