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The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why Hardcover – June 10, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 260 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ripley, an award-winning writer on homeland security for Time, offers a compelling look at instinct and disaster response as she explores the psychology of fear and how it can save or destroy us. Surprisingly, she reports, mass panic is rare, and an understanding of the dynamics of crowds can help prevent a stampede, while a well-trained crew can get passengers quickly but calmly off a crashed plane. Using interviews with survivors of hotel fires, hostage situations, plane crashes and, 9/11, Ripley takes readers through the three stages of reaction to calamity: disbelief, deliberation and action. The average person slows down, spending valuable minutes to gather belongings and check in with others. The human tendency to stay in groups can make evacuation take much longer than experts estimate. Official policy based on inaccurate assumptions can also put people in danger; even after 9/11, Ripley says, the requirement for evacuation drills on office buildings is inadequate. Ripley's in-depth look at the psychology of disaster response, alongside survivors' accounts, makes for gripping reading, sure to raise debate as well as our awareness of a life-and-death issue. 8 pages of color photos. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"A fascinating and useful new book.”
The New York Times
“The thinking person’s manual for getting out alive.”
"Ripley is a voyeur on a mission...Her conviction: We’d all stand a better chance of surviving a disaster if we understood what happens to our little gray cells when things get ugly....Spiced with surprising factoids, this book might save your life one day.”
Bloomberg News
The Unthinkable is part study of the science of reaction to extreme fear, part indictment of the US government’s response to the terrorist threat, part call to arms....The end result is a fascinating book....Despite its title and its subject matter, The Unthinkable is an optimistic…
The Times of London
“Engrossing and lucid...An absorbing study of the psychology and physiology of panic, heroism, and trauma...Facing the truth about the human capacity for risk and disaster turns out to be a lot less scary than staying in the dark.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

"This is a book with a purpose, meant to change things."
—Rob Hardy, The Commercial Dispatch

“Amanda Ripley takes us on a sometimes stunning, sometimes sobering journey through disaster, using great stories and respected science to show why some prevail and others do not.  The Unthinkable isn’t merely a book about disaster; it’s a book about survival — maybe yours.”  
——Gavin de Becker, author of the New York Times bestseller The Gift of Fear

“With The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley succeeds in two different ways. First, she covers, with great clarity and accuracy, the science of how the body and mind respond to crisis. In the process, she prescribes certain actions that will increase the chances of surviving a disaster. But it’s the second aspect, the stories, that makes the book so compelling. These tales leave your viscera enflamed because they compel two questions: ‘What would it feel like to go through that?’ and ‘Would I do the right thing and survive?’ This is an irresistible book.”
—Robert M. Sapolsky, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University

The Unthinkable is the most magnificent account of a survivor’s mind that I have ever read. It has helped me know and accept some of my reactions during my 72 day ordeal in the Andes. I can now understand how fear motivated me, and how denial also played a part. This book will help those who’ve never faced disaster to understand their own behavior and be prepared should their luck run out one day.”
—Nando Parrado, New York Times bestselling author of Miracle in the Andes

The Unthinkable reveals why, under the same circumstances, some people caught up in a disaster survive and others do not. Why some are hopelessly immobilized by fear and crippled by panic, and others are filled with strength, endurance, reactions and the other intrinsic stuff of which Homeric heroes are made. How can we ensure which we will be? In her well-crafted prose, Amanda Ripley shows us all how to prepare to meet danger and increase our chances of surviving the unthinkable.”
—Bruce Henderson, New York Times bestselling author of Down to the Sea and True North

“When a disaster occurs we invariably learn the "what" of the event -- how many died, how many survived. Amanda Ripley’s riveting The Unthinkable provides genuine insight into the "why" behind the numbers. This remarkable book will not only change your life, it could very well save it.”
—Gregg Olsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America’s Richest Silver Mine

“Ever fantasize about what you would do in a disaster? How would you survive? How would you behave? After interviewing survivors of the World Trade Center attack, Amanda Ripley sifted through amazing tales of survivors from other disasters and mined various sociological, psychological, and neurological studies. Her insights are absolutely fascinating, and they could come in handy one day.”
——Walter Isaacson, author of the New York Times bestsellers Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: A Life, and Vice-Chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority

"Rich in information about the subconscious ways we face danger. In the event that someday you face a sudden life or death situation, reading this book will increase the odds that the outcome will be life."
——David Ropeik, author of Risk!: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You

“Reading The Unthinkable will be life-changing.  We live in an age of anxiety that has too many of us rocked back on our heels.  Once you’ve feasted on the rich insights and wisdom of this remarkable book, you’ll be standing tall again.  While our politicians and media have been keen to exploit and fan our worst fears, Amanda Ripley makes clear that individually and collectively we can meet head-on the hazards that periodically befall us.  We need not be afraid!”
——Stephen Flynn, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation

The Unthinkable is a fascinating, in-depth look at human behavior under extreme pressure. Its gut-wrenching stories span the full spectrum of action under duress, from panic to heroism. Not only is this book fast-paced and engrossing, it’s illuminating.”
——Michael Tougias, author of Fatal Forecast: An Icredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea

“Amanda Ripley has written a smart, poignant account about the dramas of the existential moment in this new century. She is a provocative voice of a new generation of writers and thinkers whose grasp of daily events and global disaster is piquant, engrossing, and syncretic. Above all, she makes sense of life today in an entirely entertaining and accessible way-- all with a brimming dollop of optimism. If you ever wondered, ‘What would I do if the unthinkable happened to me,’ you hold the answer in your hands.”
—Doug Stanton, author of the New York Times bestseller In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors

"A must read. We need books like this to help us understand the world in which we live.
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Archetype; First Edition edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307352897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307352897
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (260 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #261,160 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She is the author, most recently, of THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD--and How They Got That Way. Her first book, THE UNTHINKABLE: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, was published in 15 countries and turned into a PBS documentary. Her work has helped Time win two National Magazine Awards.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"In a disaster, would I panic?" If you are like most Americans, you have never had to go through a terrorist attack, plane crash, flood, or tornado, but also when viewing such video-rich scenes on television news, you can't help wondering what you would do if you were the one in the disaster. The good news is that no, you probably won't panic, because almost no one does. The bad news is that you are far more likely to sit and do nothing. Human response to disasters can be studied, and Amanda Ripley, a senior staffer for _Time_ magazine, has interviewed people who have been in disasters, has talked with academics who study human behavior in such extremities, and has even been through mock disasters herself. She has now written _The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why_ (Crown). There are lessons here about disasters of many kinds and people who failed to respond in a way to save themselves, but this is far from a pessimistic book. If you think of a disaster as being a scene of destruction followed by panic and every-man-for-himself selfishness relieved only when the professional rescuers show up to help, Ripley has some revelatory studies and examples to give you. "Reality is a lot more interesting," she writes, "and hopeful."

She has often translated the hopefulness in her studies into practical lessons. This is a book with a purpose, meant to change things. Panic might have been present in a small number of cases at the World Trade Center, but Ripley quotes a researcher who found that workers in the towers did the same thing that others in disasters do: "What is regularly observed is a lethargic response. People are often cool during fires, ignoring or delaying their response.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wish that I could give this book six stars; it is not just an outstanding book, but its usefulness in today's times is unparalleled. It is a book about what our brains do during disasters and how we react as unpredictable individuals, which is something that science and technology do not always take into consideration.

It is not dry or dull like some books about "emergency preparedness" or "crisis management" that are more like texts or reference books. No, this is a nonfiction thriller told through fascinating stories of actual disasters in which exactly how our brains react is illustrated. It's a book about behavior, especially the behavior of regular, ordinary people, who are actually the most important people when a disaster strikes (and you'll find out why).

For example, the book doesn't just detail what to do when a tsunami strikes, or when a hurricane warning is issued, but how you will be thinking differently, how you may be confused, what brain-related problems you might have---like paralysis, temporary blindness, an apparent slowing down of time, tunnel vision, etc.

What makes some people resilient and why do they do so much better than others? The author explores this. How do groups react in a crisis? How do we process risk? Have you ever wondered why people don't evacuate when there is a disaster warning? Again, you'll find many of these answers explored here.

The author interviewed survivors of many different types of disasters (e.g., bombings, 9/11, crowd crushes, airplane fires, nightclub fires, and so many more) and THIS is what THEY wanted us to know; there were so many commonalities across the different crisis scenarios, but the survivors had no way of sharing these commonalities and principles with the general public.
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I have often wondered how I would react in a disaster. Would I freeze and be unable to move? Would I get myself to safety, however possible? Would I help others to safety?

Although we can not know with certainty until faced with disaster, this book gives clues about how and why we humans react to the "unthinkable": disasters such as plane crashes, fires, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks, as well as smaller-scale crises, such as automobile accidents.

Some disasters are not survivable. This book, though, explores why some people survive while others perish in the same circumstances, and describes the behaviors and choices that cause many to die needlessly.

"The Unthinkable" describes disasters that cumulatively resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; however, it is not a morbid tale of death, but an inspiring story of humans responding and adapting to situations and saving their own lives or the lives of those around them.

The key lesson to take from this book is the need to be prepared. Those who anticipate possible disaster and know what to do and how to do it are more confident if and when the disaster occurs. We can not prepare for every possible type of danger, but simple things such as learning where the exits are when in an unfamiliar place can mean the difference between surviving or not.

After reading "The Unthinkable," my thinking about what it means to be prepared for disaster has changed. For example, I probably pay more attention to things such as airline safety videos than the average passenger, but on future flights I will spend more time really learning my surroundings, such as counting the rows to the nearest exits.
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