Time: How to Get Out Alive

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1053663,00.html


Makes me wonder if there are things in HCI we can do to assist this.


Whether they're in shipwrecks, hurricanes, plane crashes or burning buildings, people in peril experience remarkably similar stages. And the first one--even in the face of clear and urgent danger--is almost always a period of intense disbelief.

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The people who made it out of the World Trade Center, for example, waited an average of 6 min. before heading downstairs, according to a new National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study drawn from interviews with nearly 900 survivors. But the range was enormous. Why did certain people leave immediately while others lingered for as long as half an hour? Some were helping co-workers. Others were disabled. And in Tower 2, many were following fatally flawed directions to stay put. But eventually everyone saw smoke, smelled jet fuel or heard someone giving the order to leave. Many called relatives. About 1,000 took the time to shut down their computers, according to NIST.

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Large groups of people facing death act in surprising ways. Most of us become incredibly docile. We are kinder to one another than normal. We panic only under certain rare conditions. Usually, we form groups and move slowly, as if sleepwalking in a nightmare.

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In a crisis, our instincts can be our undoing. William Morgan, who directs the exercise-psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied mysterious scuba accidents in which divers drowned with plenty of air in their tanks. It turns out that certain people experience an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. They respond to that overwhelming sensation by relying on their instinct, which is to rip out whatever is in their mouths. For scuba divers, unfortunately, it is their oxygen source. On land, that would be a perfect solution.

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People caught up in disasters tend to fall into three categories. About 10% to 15% remain calm and act quickly and efficiently. Another 15% or less completely freak out--weeping, screaming or otherwise hindering the evacuation. That kind of hysteria is usually isolated and quickly snuffed out by the crowd. The vast majority of people do very little. They are "stunned and bewildered," as British psychologist John Leach put it in a 2004 article published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

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In the 1970s, psychologist Daniel Johnson was working on safety research for McDonnell Douglas. The more disasters he studied, the more he realized that the classic fight-or-flight behavior paradigm was incomplete. Again and again, in shipwrecks as well as plane accidents, he saw examples of people doing nothing at all. He was even able to re-create the effect in his lab. He found that about 45% of people in his experiment shut down (that is, stopped moving or speaking for 30 sec. or often longer) when asked under pressure to perform unfamiliar but basic tasks. "They quit functioning. They just sat there," Johnson remembers. It seemed horribly maladaptive. How could so many people be hard-wired to do nothing in a crisis?

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