We all have asked ourselves at some time, or wondered out loud, how would we react in a disaster situation. Would we freeze? Would we pretend that everything was alright? Would we heroically jump in while others watched? Would we panic?

Ms. Ripley’s remarkable, and impeccably researched book; “The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes – and why,” attempts to answer these questions. It does so by looking at how others have responded in extraordinary circumstances, but it also gives the reader pointers on how to better prepare oneself for potential emergency situations and how managers may produce better emergency protocols and procedures.

The book manages the rather remarkable feat of being both a gripping read when discussing the highly personal stories of people during the worst day of their lives; September 11th, The Virginia Tech Shooting, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous plane crashes, but also highly intellectual when looking at the social, evolutionary, and cultural reasons why people behave as they do.

A fundamental issue that “The Unthinkable” explores, is that the public is more often than not given either no information or the wrong information. With the wrong information, or a lack of information, we cannot evaluate risk. This is importantly because our minds will often, from an evolutionary impulse try to get more data, or try to make the facts fit an existing pattern if the brain does not have previous experience of the particular situation. Fire drills, and safety briefings on planes, are important not merely for the information they impart, but they give our brains a pattern to follow. We behave differently in emergency situations; “superheroes with learning difficulties” as Ms. Ripley so eloquently puts it. Another fascinating aspect of this need for better information to evaluate risk is that our brains do much better at properly evaluating how information affects us when we read the information as opposed to watching the same information on a format such as television.

The structure of “The Unthinkable,” is based around “The Survival Arc” of Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. That people can go through these three phases multiple times in an emergency, but also respond differently, is another feature that keeps the book constantly engaging.

It is rare to read a book that could actually save your life, and also shake you out of complicacy. But “The Unthinkable” is just such a book. It is also most intriguing to read a multi- disciplinary book such as this that looks at personal history, culture, and up brining, but also delves into psychology, evolution, and group behavior. For those that are responsible for others “The Unthinkable” teaches us that we need to be thinking about the unthinkable, if for no other reason to help mold how we may respond and how we may protect those in our charge. As an individual, “The Unthinkable” is a road map to survival and to understand our reactions to extreme events.

It could save our lives.