Like everyone else in the world, we have been devastated and distressed by the sinking of the South Korean ferry with its likely loss of 300 lives, many of them teenagers from one school who were on a field trip. The entire event occurred in less than an hour.
What is now emerging is that many of the young people killed died because they were told to stay in their cabins or in the cafeteria area, an act that the South Korean President has called “tantamount to murder”. Given the excessive deference to authority common in Asian countries, that is exactly what they did, and it appears to have condemned hundreds to an unpleasant and possibly avoidable death. Of those students and other passengers who were nearer the edge of the ship and on the outside many survived.
But what if the passengers had ignored crew demands and made their own decisions, based on their observable situation? What if, indeed, we were to do the same, in an emergency situation.
Much work has been done on what is known as the “Survivor personality”. Stories abound of those who escaped from the 9-11 attack, for example, because they insisted on leaving via the stairwells rather than gathering on high floors until advised to leave, until in many cases it was too late to leave.
Before his death in 2009, “resiliency expert” and psychologist Al Siebert, PhD listed those factors he considered give some people a better chance of surviving a disaster.
Of course, survival in a deadly crisis is challenging because of the shock and unexpectedness of the threat. During the chaotic turmoil of a deadly emergency some people feel overwhelmed and freeze up. Others panic and may act in senseless ways that reduce their survival chances. Many become highly emotional and believe they are going to die. In contrast, a few people quickly comprehend the reality of the new situation, accept that they could die but nevertheless don’t panic, and take action to increase their chances of surviving.
Calm seems to be the key dividing factor.
And in real life deadly situations it is wrong to think that a person will necessarily fight to survive at the expense of others. It is not “either me or you”, it is “both me and you.” Stories of survivors usually reveal that in the survival turmoil they extend their coping skills and their commitment to live to those around them. They reflexively act in ways to keep both themselves and others alive.
Being a survivor in life and death emergencies is an outcome from interacting with everyday life in ways that increase the probability of survival when survival is necessary. Your habitual way of reacting to everyday challenges influences your chances of being a survivor in a crisis or an emergency. The interaction includes three core elements:
- Quickly absorb accurate information about what is happening.
- Feel confident that something can be done to influence events in a way that leads to a good outcome.
- Be willing to consider using any possible action. Do whatever it takes.
First, of course, one needs to survive the “toss of the Cosmic Coin”. Before a deadly disaster, no one can predict who will live or die. Chance and luck play a role when a group of people is trapped in a deadly shooting, a sinking boat, or plane crash. But the survivor personality research reveals that if you are still alive after others have died, there may be moments when what you do can make a difference in whether or not you live or die.
So here is what survivors do.
In a Crisis, Survivors Rapidly Read the New Reality
Life’s best survivors are people who are habitually curious. This habit predisposes a survivor to quickly read the new reality in an emergency. This quick comprehension of the total circumstance is called “pattern empathy.”
While reading their new reality they simultaneously scan internally for the best action or reaction from their reservoir of paradoxical response possibilities. This automatic and sometimes unconscious reflex can cause the individual to later be astonished by what they’ve done, and to wonder just how he or she accomplished it.
In a crisis, the survivor reflex is to rapidly “ask” un-verbalized clusters of questions, such as:
- What is happening? Not happening?
- Should I jump, duck, grab, yell, freeze, or what?
- How much time do I have? How little?
- Must I do anything? Nothing?
- What are others doing? Not doing? Why?
- Where do I fit in the scene?
- Have I been noticed? How do I appear in their eyes?
- I am faced with a dangerous person. What is the dangerous person afraid of? How anxious are they? How will my actions affect them?
- How are others reacting? What are their feelings?
- How serious is this?
- How much danger exists now? Is it over?
- Does anyone need help? Who doesn’t?
The more quickly a person grasps the total picture of what is happening, the better his or her chance for survival.
The reading of the reality includes a quick empathy assessment of others in the situation.
This includes scanning the emotional states of others in the survival situation to judge how helpful or unhelpful they may be and reading the emotional state of any attackers that may have caused the danger. There’s no point obeying a steward on a plane that is in a forced landing situation, for example, is that steward is clearly panicking. Your opinion of their advice must be measured against how much you trust the advice they’re giving.
Alertness, pattern recognition, empathy, and awareness can be viewed as a sort of “open-brainedness.”
This open-brainedness is a mental orientation that does not impose pre-existing patterns on new information, but rather allows new information to reshape the person’s mental maps. The person who has the best chance of handling a situation well is usually the one with the best mental maps, the best mental pictures or images, of what is occurring around them.
In contrast, those people who are not able to survive well tend to have incorrect or distorted constructions of what is happening in the world outside their bodies.
To Survive an Emergency: Above all, Stay Calm
Telling yourself to “stay calm” and “relax” is a useful. Several deep breaths will help. Rage, screaming, panic, or fainting are not good solutions to a crisis (unless done out of choice as a way to affect others.)
Anger, fear and panic narrow what a person sees and reduces response choices. The evidence is clear on this point. Being calm improves awareness and effective actions.
Laughing and Playfulness Improve Efficiency
Playful humour enhances survival for many reasons.
Mental efficiency is directly related to a person’s level of emotional arousal. At high levels of arousal a person makes mistakes. He or she reacts too fast, panics, and may act in dysfunctional ways. (The exception is for an action requiring simple, powerful, muscular effort. High arousal can create super-human strength.) When a person is highly emotional, he or she is less able to solve problems and make precise, coordinated movements. Laughing reduces tension to more moderate levels and efficiency improves.
Playing with a situation makes a person more powerful than sheer will power. The person who toys with the situation creates an inner feeling of, “This is my plaything; I am bigger than it. I can toy with it as I wish. I won’t let it scare me. I’m going to have fun with this.”
Another advantage of playful humour is that it redefines the situation emotionally. The person who makes humorous observations is relaxed, alert, and focused outward toward the situation to be dealt with. And a benefit of playful humour is that it leads to the discovery of creative solutions.
Be Open to Do Anything
Survival chances are increased by quickly considering a wide-range of response choices. This can lead to acting in a way that is opposite from what most people might do or opposite from what you typically do.
The benefit from having this type of open-to-ideas personality is that you are always open to do something new or different, which may be required by the situation, while people with trained personalities are limited to what they’ve been taught to do.
Survivors are complex. They have many paradoxical traits and attributes. This gives them choices for doing one thing or doing the opposite, depending on their reading of the situation. Inner complexity is why survivors are more flexible and adapt more quickly than people with rigid, inflexible ways of doing things.
Life-Competence Helps in Emergencies
Survivors who are alive because of actions they took in a life and death emergency acted out of reflexive self-confidence.
Their daily habit in life is to keep learning ways to be better at having things work well for themselves and others. When they make mistakes or don’t handle something well, they convert whathappened into a valuable learning experience. Through this process of self-managed learning they keep getting better at whatever they apply themselves to and become more and more self-confident in their ability to handle new, unfamiliar, and difficult challenges.
Healthy self-appreciation and a positive self-concept make life-competent people invulnerable to personal threats, victim games, and con artists. Their empathy skills let them see that a raging or threateningly dangerous person, for example, is not powerful, but is someone in great pain, may be trying to overcome feeling helpless, or is misdirecting angry rage felt toward others. Perceptive individuals see that anyone whose rage is so out of control that they want to kill people they don’t know, is an ineffective, emotionally weak person. This allows them the psychological control over their frightening situation that will allow them to make calm, rational decisions to maximise their chance of survival.
Totally Commit to Doing Your Best
The survivor reaction to a crisis is like side-stepping a charging bull.
One reads reality rapidly by asking oneself clusters of questions nonverbally, relaxing strong emotions, and noticing something amusing to laugh at. At the same time, total attention is on surviving and turning the situation around. The person makes an emotional commitment to handle what is happening and focuses on finding a way to succeed. The solution, the action, is usually creative and it works by re-defining the situation.
When problems or new difficulties occur, survivors recover quickly from feeling discouraged.
The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost or feeling distressed about things going badly. Survivors avoid feeling like victims and focus on helping
The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully and totally responsible for making things work out well. The better your self-confidence, the more you can face up to a crisis believing that you can handle it without knowing exactly what you will do. When you remain highly conscious, play with what is happening, and allow yourself to do something unpredictable that has a chance of working, and you usually discover or invent a way to deal effectively with it.
So: Read the New Reality, Stay Calm, Attempt Laughter and Playfulness, Be Open to Do Anything To Survive, Build your Life Confidence in advance, Commit to the Process of Survival.
Good luck – and we hope you never need to use the advice!