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He Who Hesitates is Lost: The Psychology of Survival

In a crisis situation, denial can be deadly.

The Psychology of Survival

In a worst-case scenario, hesitation kills.

No one wants to accept that something horrible has happened. The human brain is configured in a way that it is in our very nature to deny that something outside our normal paradigm has occurred. This is called cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions…Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others.” (source)

But in a crisis situation, denial can be deadly.

These are the phases of psychological reactions in a crisis:

  1. Denial- People do not want to believe the event occurred or is occurring. They simply cannot accept, for example, that a plane just deliberately crashed into the building where they are working.
  2. Delay – People often opt to do something to delay the acceptance of what is going on. They might tidy up, put away food in the refrigerator, or methodically gather belongings to give themselves another few moments of perceived normalcy.
  3. Diagnosis- People then begin to assess the situation. They begin to consider the input from their senses: the smell of something burning, the sound of something crashing down or people screaming, the sight of the devastation.
  4. Acceptance- People then accept that this crisis is indeed occurring.
  5. Consideration– At this point most people begin to consider their best course of action. Others are so overwhelmed by the situation that they shut down and have to be aided by first responders or other victims of the crisis in order to survive.
  6. Action- Finally, a course of action is chosen and implemented. Some examples of this could be escape, evacuation, fighting back, performing first aid on injured people, or fortifying their position.

Interviews with people who escaped the World Trade Center after the 9/11 disaster, those who survived plane crashes, and others who lived through fires, all describe how they instantly froze when the devastating incidents occurred. Despite the fact that their very lives were at risk, structures were crumbling, or they were the victim of people who were intent on harming them, they could not immediately accept that the event was occurring. Many people talked about gathering up documents or personal belongings before heading for the stairwells on 9/11. People in plane crashes often grab their carry-on bags, despite flight attendants’ warnings to leave them behind. People in house fires will often try to grab photo albums or possessions before escaping the building. The response is very common, and it is a function of a brain that doesn’t want to accept the dreadful reality: people busy themselves with things which are mundane in an attempt to delay accepting the current situation.

While these stories are from survivors who did manage to escape with their lives, there are likely many others who did not live because their brains simply refused to accept that something so horrible could be occurring.

Dr. A. R. Roberts performed a psychological study in 2000, which he reported on in his Crisis Intervention Handbook. Roberts noted these common reactions in the midst of a crisis:

  • People first begin to recognize that there is a threat.
  • Next, these individuals discover that the stress and trauma of the event cannot be dealt with using existing coping skills.
  • People then begin to experience fear, confusion, and stress.
  • Those facing a crisis begin to exhibit symptoms of distress and discomfort.
  • Finally, people enter a state of imbalance where the crisis situation seems insurmountable.


During military training, recruits are put into situations that train them to immediately assess a situation and instantly choose a course of action. This allows them to act more quickly than other people, and it gives them an advantage in many scenarios.

The key, though, is not just to simply act as soon as an event occurs. It is to speed up your actual decision-making process. One way to do that is by skipping the cognitive-dissonance phase. You must go through the above reactions quickly or not at all in order to respond quickly.

If you can immediately accept that something out of the ordinary has occurred, you will be able to move on to the assessment phase instead of wasting precious reaction time convincing yourself that the event itself has occurred.

You can improve your reaction to crisis

Speeding up your reaction to unexpected circumstances is a two-fold process. It is both physical and mental.

Think about an athlete. If you throw a ball, even unexpectedly, his immediate reaction is to put up his hand and catch the ball before it hits him in the face. His muscle-memory has kicked in and this is his automatic response. A non-athlete might react differently. He might stand there and get hit with the ball or put up his arm to block the ball, but his first reaction might not be to try and catch it.

The athlete has spent many hours catching and throwing, so his body is already prepared to do that in a split second. As well, sports like boxing or martial arts hone your reflexes and teach your muscles to instantly respond in a certain way. When police officers and members of the military are undergoing training, they spend many hours at the shooting range to make their weapon an automatic extension of their arm.

Training isn’t just for professional first responders. It can speed up your reactions, both physical and mental. It may not turn you into a ninja but it can definitely improve your chances at survival.

Here are some ways to keep your physical reflexes sharp (or to improve them if they are a bit rusty):

  • Use it or lose it. If you have a desk job, you may not spend enough time being active. Take some time every day to toss around a ball, to go to the gym, to hike, or to go for a run.
  • Learn to fight. Martial arts, boxing, krav maga: all of these are great exercise and great training.
  • Perform a balancing act. Little kids love to walk on curbs, blocks of concrete, or anything else that can serve as an impromptu balance beam. As adults, most of us spend little time practicing our balance. Try walking on the curbs right along with your kids, climbing, or going to yoga. Help your body remember what it is to use balance.
  • Cardio. In the event of an emergency, you don’t want to be huffing and puffing after you’ve gone down two flights of stairs. Get your heart in shape and keep it that way with regular cardiovascular exercise that gets your heart rate up.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You can create muscle memory by repeating something over and over until it becomes as natural to you as breathing. Go to the range and practice shooting your weapon. Practice archery. Play catch. Do agility drills. All of these things prepare your body to respond instinctively in an emergency, which can shave precious seconds off of your response time.

Equally important, if not more so, is improving your mental response to a crisis. As was discussed above, people tend to squander time dilly-dallying over the acceptance of the fact that the event is actually occurring. If you’re reading this article, more than likely it is because you have already mentally accepted the fact that sudden emergencies occur, and that puts you one step ahead.

  • Run scenarios. No one can be mentally prepared for everything, but by imagining situations in which a crisis occurs, you can train your brain to look for solutions. You will have already overcome a portion of that cognitive dissonance that says “This can’t be happening to me.” My kids and I do this when watching movies. Sometimes we stop the movie and discuss what we could do if a similar incident happened to us. They’ve taken it a step further and sometimes bring up a scenario when we are out. We run through our options and talk about the pros and cons of a course of action.
  • Don’t live in a bubble. Be aware of trends in the news. For example, there has been a spate of horrific attacks across the country called “knock-out” attacks. In this so-called “game”, a group of teens, for sheer amusement, brutally assaults an innocent victim. If you know that this something going on in your area, you can sometimes recognize the situation immediately and pass that moment of cognitive dissonance. This allows you to respond and defend yourself quickly and decisively.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. If you are glued to your iPhone or otherwise oblivious to that which is going on around you, then it’s going to take you longer to assess the crisis. Actually it’s going to take you longer to realize the crisis is even going on. A person who practices situational awareness will often observe unusual behavior and be in response mode before the crisis is fully developed. For example, they might notice suspicious behavior from another patron in the store before that patron whips out a gun and tries to rob the clerk. This would give the observer a distinct advantage because they’d already be moving on to the consideration step in the crisis process while everyone else in the store was still on step 1, denying that they had found themselves in the middle of a hold-up.
  • Stop poisoning yourself. Finally, stop poisoning yourself. Our society is dumbed down on prescription drugs, fluoride in the water, and toxins added to our food supply. Many people walk around in a perpetual haze, dulled by the things that they consume. Antidepressants, ADD drugs, and other medications can slow the thought processes. Fluoride quite literally drops your IQ. Neurotoxins like MSG and artificial sweeteners kill brain cells. Keep your body pure and watch your reaction times and thought processes improve.

By understanding the natural human responses to crises, we can cut our personal reaction times. Hopefully you are never in a 9/11-style attack, present at a convenience store robbery, or caught in a natural disaster, but if you are, your ability to accept the situation, think quickly, and take action could save the lives of you and your loved ones.

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on July 17th, 2014