Neil Strauss On The Unthinkable

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The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley definitely added to my understanding of how people react in disasters. The writing could be better, but overall it was an interesting book and a decent enough read.

Whenever I come across a book that deals largely with the psychology of crisis, violence, survival, or anything related, I jump at the chance to read it. Psychology and Sociology have always been a bit of a fascination for me. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with reading people and their interactions. When I was a Pickup Artist, it revolved around the social dynamics of dating. And once I dove into learning about survival, the psychology of survival quickly became a large part of what I studied. As my interest has focused in on Urban Survival, I realized that a large part of Urban Survival involves understanding how the people around me, and how I myself, would react.

Urban Survival is the main focus of this site and a large focus of my life for the last couple of years. One thing we have an abundance of in Urban areas is people. People can be the thing that saves you or they can be the thing that kills you. What is more important – how you react in a crisis – can be what saves you or kills you.

Unlike most of the books I have come across that are survival-centric, The Unthinkable discusses how people react in crisis situations; both as individuals and as groups, without getting into hysterics. Amanda Ripley does not take a tone of fright. Instead, in a matter of fact way, she lays out what really happens in various types of disasters.

Hollywood and the media love to show us images of panic and the worse actions of humanity during disasters and times of crisis. What the author shows us is that inactivity is more often the case than panic. Most people go into “Brain Lock” as put by Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club.

Ripley looks at the psychology involved in crisis situations to explain who lives and who dies. She does this by examining real life events and conducting a large number of interviews with people who have survived these events. Ripley does not delve into flights of fancy or conjecture. Instead she relies on recent historical evidence of how people handled themselves.

The Unthinkable is written like a long article. This makes sense, as that is the author’s background – a writer for Time Magazine. The bulk of the book is made up of interviews with survivors of disasters. Through their recanting and then her examination of the event, Ripley lays out the how and why of people’s actions and inaction within the accounts.

Point Of Interest

If you are looking for a “Disaster How-to Manual”, this is not it. However, readers would find it hard not to finish the book with an understanding of the dynamics involved in emergencies, and to gain knowledge that would hopefully help save their lives.

Amanda Ripley refers to evolutionary psychology a lot in The Unthinkable. If the idea of anything to do with evolution rubs you the wrong way, know that the author’s regular reference to evolutionary psychology and how it plays into crisis situations, will bug you.

Most books dealing with disasters leave me wanting to pet a rifle, batten down the hatches of my rabbit hole, or run out to buy more prepping supplies. This is one of the few books were I felt a calm understanding rather than a sense of urgency after reading it.

Closing Thoughts

While decent, the book is kind of a let down. Parts of the book tend to meander around without feeling like they are going anywhere. More actionable information, more accounts, fewer digressions, and a lot more interviews with experts – in addition to survivors – on the topic would have really enhanced The Unthinkable. I would give this book 3 out of 5 stars. Worth reading, but not amazing.