“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks in the lake?” one of the great looking people on shore screams. Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old, and they speak in hallowed tones. “You’ve gone too far Dougie!” the great looking people on shore continue to shriek. “Come back!”
“C’mon ya’ chickens!” Dougie says backstroking leisurely. “It’s fun, and there’s nothing out here!”
The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the speakers of our movie theater. A subtle roar follows. We tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that we flex our forearms. We’re joining the gorgeous people on shore with mental screams sent to Dougie to get out of the water. The great looking people on shore grow hysterical, screaming that there are swirling waters.
“Ah, shut it!” everybody’s favorite clown, Dougie, says waving off the warnings.
The trouble is the actor that plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. Those of us that have watched movies for decades, and know casting, know Dougie’s in trouble.
The monster roars up to an impossible height. Dougie looks up at it, and he finally begins screaming. The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror. It gnashes its teeth a little, it swivels its head about, and it looks menacingly at Dougie. Dougie continues to look up, and he continues to scream, as the monster lowers onto him and bites his head off. The idea that this scene took a whole thirty seconds leaves those of us that have watched too many horror movies in a squirming state.
Why didn’t he just move, is a question horror movie aficionados have asked for decades. Why did he sit there and scream for thirty seconds? We could live with the fact that the monster would’ve moved through the water quicker than Dougie, had Dougie attempted to swim away. It’s more aquatic than Dougie. We could’ve also lived with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water, but as a person that gets titillated by horror movies, I would like to see their victims do a little more to survive.
When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie types. I still want them to move, but I realized that they receive instructions from the director to stay on the spot the director designated for the decapitation scene. This clichéd scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that most of those people are not quite thirty. For the rest of us, it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move, or do anything and everything they can to survive.
Author David McRaney argues that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are closer to the truth than anything we horror movie aficionados call for. The book, You Are Not so Smart, suggests that the one detail of our story that is incorrect, in many stories similar to Dougie’s, is the screaming.
Those of us that are casual, non-psychology types, believe that there are two basic reactions every human will have in the face of catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action, or those that act and those that choke. Those that act may also be broken down into two categories: those that fight to save themselves, in a selfish manner, and those that act in a heroic fashion to save others, but casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations.
McRaney argues that there is a third course of action, and casual, non-psychology types will be more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to an acceleration that may cause one to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction. A victim of fear bradycardia experiences a freezing, or an attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments that contain unprecedented aspects of chaos and horror for the unprepared.
Put succinct, fear bradycardia is the idea that a person, a Dougie, will stop moving and hope for the best. This psychological state occurs when we encounter a moment of unprecedented, abject horror. It is based on the idea that in those moments, most of us will not know what to do, and we will freeze in place with the hope that that moment will go away, and we won’t be forced to decide what to do, or how to act, in anyway. It is an automatic and involuntary instinct in all of us. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, it falls under the umbrella of a term psychologists call the normalcy bias.
McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia. He lists an F5 tornado that occurred in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, a plane crash in which the plane managed to get earthbound before exploding and killing everyone on impact, survivors of floods, and the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01.
According to some first responders, the one thing common to most survivors of such tragedies is that they go to a dream-like state. With their world falling down around them, and no one to shake them out of it, most survivors will shut down and go to a safe, more normal space in their minds where all of this horror isn’t occurring around them, and they aren’t being called upon to act in a manner that will result in their survival.
In the aftermath of the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, some first responders spoke of the calm evacuating survivors exhibited, and how most survivors followed instructions to allow for a safe exit. Some first responders said that the nature of these survivors saved lives. They suggested that the nature of this exit should be a model for future survivors, and first responders, to learn the proper evacuation process.
Other first responders agreed with the general sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t much room to sprint, very few added to the chaos by complaining about the slow, orderly exit, and even fewer attempted to find another way to get out of the buildings quicker.
Some of the first responders, cited by McRaney, spoke of the manner in which some survivors took a couple of extra, crucial moments to complete the log out procedures on their computers, before listening to the first responders; some gathered their coats, and others even engaged in mundane conversations with their cohorts on the way out.
What a bunch of idiots, those of us on the outside looking in may think, when reading that. If I were in that situation, I would be running. I might be crying, even screaming, and I may even knock the occasional little, old lady down in my departure, but I would do everything I could to get out. I don’t care what this pop psychologist says I’m all about survival brutha.
We’ve all watched such scenes in movies, and TV shows. We’ve all placed ourselves in the mind of the characters involved, and we’ve all done things a little different from them. We’ve all shouted things at our various screens when the Dougie characters just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted, but the central question of McRaney’s thesis is do we really know, or do we think we know? How prepared are we for a moment of unprecedented horror and catastrophe, and how much of what we think we know conflicts with the reality of what we really know?
“If you haven’t (experienced a worst case scenario firsthand),” writes McRaney. “You can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas of how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up knowing the actual truth of these questions after it’s too late to rectify it.”
Shutting down computers, gathering coats and having mundane conversations are automatic and involuntary responses that occur because of this dream-like, normal state that we go to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever make this horrific and unprecedented moment of chaos, a normal moment. We shutdown to block out the flood of external stimuli that may otherwise cause us to panic.
“The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes. “They had a desire to make everything around them “go” normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”
As stated previous, most casual, non-psychology types would characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because you may not be freezing up out of panic. “It’s a reflexive incredulity” McRaney writes –attributing the term to an Amanda Ripley– “That causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner. This reflexive incredulity causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so. It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures– the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel– are well aware of, and that they document this in manuals and trade publications.”
McRaney provides just such a list from a journal called “The International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.” This entry lists the course of actions most of us will experience when we go through a chaotic catastrophe.
Interpret. You will attempt to define the incident that is occurring around you in terms that you are familiar. Doing so, will lead you to underestimating it.
One such incident to illustrate this, by contrast, was the “underwear bomber” incident. The successful thwarting of this planned terrorist attack was due, in part, to luck, but the expedient and resolute manner in which the passengers reacted to the incident was due, in part, to precedent. Thanks to the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, in other words, those heroic passengers lived with a post-9/11 mindset.
Save for those passengers on flight ninety-three, that managed to overtake the pilots piloting the plane to crash into the ground near Pittsburgh, one has to imagine that most of the passengers on the other flights, froze up with reflexive incredulity when the terrorists took control of the planes. They didn’t know a world where terrorists flew planes into buildings, and they were not prepared for the violent worst-case scenario the terrorists’ presence indicated.
The terrorists capitalized on this, whether they knew it or not, by informing the passengers that this was a simple hijacking, and once the terrorists got their money, it would all be over. Hindsight may lead us to believe that the passengers were naïve to believe this, but why wouldn’t they? One could also guess that the passengers believed this too, because they wanted to believe this. The alternative may have been too horrific for them to contemplate.
Information. You will seek information from those around you to see what they think of the incident. This may involve, as McRaney points out in other parts of the chapter, listening to radio and television, and any source of media that helps you come to terms with the incident.
Most of those on board flight ninety-three may not have been better equipped to handle a terrorist incident occurring on their plane, they were just better informed. The terrorists on board that flight made a strategic error of not understanding psychology well enough. They allowed the passengers to call their loved ones. Those loved ones redefined the norms of the passengers on ninety-three, by telling those passengers what they were witnessing on TV. Those passengers then informed other passengers, until all parties concerned defeated this reflexive incredulity acted in the manner they did.
According to reports, there was a great deal of discussion on flight ‘93. There was discussion among the passengers, relaying the reports they were hearing with others on the ground that prompted Todd Beamer to say, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” They helped each other interpret what they were experiencing with the information they gleaned from those on the ground, and they used this information to prompt others to act.
Move. After doing all this, you will evacuate.
The sociologists, McRaney cites, say, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.” Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other incidents for which we are more familiar.
Men, in particular, have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away. Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away. How many times have you heard a man say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as a previous experience I once had?”
The culprit they assign to unwarranted fear is hype. The type of hype, they will suggest, comes from the media and politicians. The media wants viewers and politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep you afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify. All of this is true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to happen in our country.
We only add the political section of this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those that rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident could have on their minds if they didn’t deal with it in the manner they do. The problem arises when we face the type of horror we’ve rationalized for most of our life. At that point, they will fall back on what they know to normalize their incident in such a way as to help them deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that this incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could imagine.
To those that suggest that there is politics at play here, and that we should all start believing the hype of politicians, and media players, is a rationalization in and of itself. Most of us recognize that some media outlets, and politicians, have made their bones on promoting fear, but there are times when a little fear –an emotion that can initiate a need for awareness– could save your life.
For these reasons and others, it is crucial that a city facing an ensuing crisis, have their local media inundate us with reports concerning an impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm. It is also a reason, for those of us that make fun of our friends for paying attention to the stewardess’ instructions, to drop our macho façade and listen. We may also want to drop the pretense that we’re such frequent travelers that we’ve prepared ourselves for anything and get our normalcy redefined in preparation for what could go wrong.
Even with all the information McRaney provides, I still find it hard to believe that those movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions a Dougie will display as a monster nears him, are closer to the truth than I am about how I will react. I live with the belief that a survivor instinct will kick in when I see a monster coming at my head, and that I will do whatever it takes to try to survive the incident, regardless if I am great looking, unattractive, or out of shape. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am going to be so afraid of appearing afraid that I will disregard the information that may help me avert disaster. We’ve all had some incidents in our lives that we call mini-disasters in the grand scheme of things, and most people have a decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them. Here’s to hoping that if our lives ever depend on our reactions that we don’t experience a fear bradycardia, a tonic immobility, a reflexive incredulity, or any of those normal bias tendencies that McRaney says are automatic and involuntary instincts among the unprepared that have lied to themselves for so long that they may rationalize themselves to death.