Commuting isn't for the faint of heart.
I went to graduate school in New York City, but I lived and worked in New Jersey. This meant that for a few years I found myself part of the bridge and tunnel commuter shuffle. My route involved taking a bus to Port Authority and then riding the subway to school (first day of school I got on the wrong subway and happily traveled several blocks in the wrong direction before realizing anything was wrong). I learned that there was an art and science to commuting--what kind of seat to look for on the bus, how to ignore the person next to you, and most importantly, the fastest and best routes from the bus gate to the subway platform. This was of utmost importance to me--most days I had morning classes that got out at 1:00 and I had to be at work at 4:00. If I made it onto the 1:30 bus, I could stop at home first and get a few desperately needed moments of privacy, quiet or sleep. If I missed the 1:30, though, I had to wait until the 2:30 bus and that meant that I would have to go straight to work, and that was just miserable. I remember more than a few times making it to the bus gate one or two minutes too late and bursting into tears on the spot.
So I studied how much time it took me to get from the subway to the bus. I figured out how often the subways came to the stop near school, and I left classes without looking back, even if the teacher was still rambling on. I knew not to carry too much with me at any time in case I had to run the distance from the subway to the bus. I also learned that sometimes no matter how much you planned and tried, things just went wrong. There's a problem with the trains, and you're stuck helplessly at 96th Street with the minutes ticking away; you're in the Lincoln Tunnel and traffic is backed up and you have no hope of getting home in time for anything. And when that happened, I learned to just give in, and think, "I have done all I have done. There is nothing I can do."
What fascinated me about this commuting wisdom is that I was not the only one who had acquired it. Sometimes you walk onto a subway platform and see what looks like thousands of people standing there, the obvious sign that something is wrong with the train. Or in those days when I relied on the bus, there would be times when I'd bound up the last flight of stairs to the the fourth floof of the bus terminal and see lines snaking from my gate all the way back to the escalator. Again, something had gone wrong and we were all left to wait. And the astonishing thing was that I never saw crowds in these situations go mad. You would think there would be people screaming, swarming, pounding on the glassed in booth of the subway workers, grabbing the bus employees and swearing at them. But no, nothing--maybe some more sighing and annoyed voices than usual, but hardly the behavior you would expect from a giant crowd of people who are suddenly finding out that they can't get where they're trying to go. Where's the anger, the chaos? I always marvel at this.
So a few weeks ago, when the US Airways plane crash-landed in the Hudson River and word came out that the evacuation had been fairly orderly (though as it turned out later, not as calm and orderly as first reported), I wasn't surprised. For some reason, crowds often behave better than you would think, and I had no idea why. When I read one of the articles about the crash and rescue, though, I found some quotes from Amanda Ripley, who had just written a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, that covered, amongst other things, how crowds behave during disasters. It took me no time to put that one on reserve and then rush down to get it.
The Titanic--a disaster where almost no one behaved well.
The Unthinkable turned out to be a fascinating little book (and by little, I just mean that it was short, only about 250 pages). Ripley balances personal accounts from survivors of disasters with information from psychological and physiological studies of how people behave during disasters. A reporter, Ripley gamely goes along with as many of the tests and demonstrations as she can--a terrifying plane crash simulator that's used for training flight attendants, an MRI to see if her brain shows the right stuff for behaving well under stress, and a fire at a firefighter training site (I liked that she wrote that she got to put on firefighter gear, which, she said, "was pretty cool." I completely understand. I probably would have been so impressed by myself in my big coat and boots that I wouldn't have made it out of the fake burning building).
There were two main lessons to take away from the book. One was officials spend much too much time training rescue personnel, and not enough teaching everyday people what to do if they find themselves in an emergency situation. The reasons are what you would expect: the officials don't want people to panic if they start talking about disasters (not true--training will prevent them from panicking); companies don't want to spend work time on drills or training; businesses worry about accidents during training that could lead to lawsuits. This is all extremely short-sighted--people go through a number of phases when disaster strikes, including denial. Their minds won't let them believe something has happened or that it's that bad, and therefore they either don't move, or waste time picking up personal possessions and things like that. They may mill around and look to see what others are doing (whether you survive a disaster may depend on if you happen to end up by a group that takes the right actions). Some people freeze up completely until someone shakes them into consciousness. Others actually experience temporary blindness. People who have been trained about what to do to escape a building or a plane or whatever will at least have a plan to follow that will kick in subconsciously and take over if they get through denial quickly enough.
The other lesson is that you're much more likely to survive a disaster if you're a former special forces soldier, marine, or some other highly trained expert. Okay, you may not be any of those, but you can learn from what was drilled into them during their training, most notably pay attention when you're in a new place, listen if you're given instructions, and if an emergency happens, formulate a plan quickly and stick to it. And breathe, like yoga breathing (though apparently special forces tough guys call it something other than yoga breathing; they're too cool for yoga, which I can understand. I had to return the book to the library so I don't remember what they called it, sorry...I probably shouldn't have brought it up). It makes sense to actually notice where the exit signs are when you're in a building, where the stairs are. No matter how many times you've flown, watch when they do the demonstration about how to exit or how to use the oxygen masks (I am guilty of having had headphones on during those demonstrations too many times). Act quickly. Seriously, the theme for the entire book is "be prepared," somehow in some way. And practice makes perfect. (Rehearse!)
The sections on what people do in a disaster were particularly fascinating. As I already mentioned, there are people who just freeze or won't move. During a description of a fire that took place at a crowded nightclub and catering hall, Ripley describes how bodies were found still sitting at their tables, not having moved despiter the people leaving around them; other people, exiting casually, stopped to pick up drinks from the bar. This is the moment when you say to yourself, "Oh my gosh, I'd never do anything like that--if there's a disaster, I'm getting out, no questions or hesitations!" But you know what? No matter how many times you think that to yourself, does anyone really know how they would behave in those circumstances? (Unless, of course, you are a Navy SEAL or an undercover detective).
People also look for leadership, anyone to tell them anything. Even just someone yelling get out, or go here. And interestingly, they respond better to people yelling or screaming orders than people who are speaking calmly. Studies found that people moved slowly and took their time exiting a downed plane when flight attendants spoke calmly; when the flight attendants screamed, "Move!" or "Jump!" the passengers listened and exited much more quickly. So the lesson here is that if you're ever in a disaster, don't hesitate to start yelling orders to people if you know what to do (studies have also found that people who are self-confident are more likely to survive a disaster--they just believe they're going to survive and believe in the actions they take, and thus move more quickly and purposefully. So buck up, little campers! You all rock.).
The most difficult thing to understand, psychologists have found, is heroism; evil is easier to understand than people who risk their own lives to save strangers. Studies have been done to try to come up with a profile of who will run back into the burning building or jump into the freezing lake, but it's still not easy to define. Some generalities are that people who are likely to be heroes tend to be young and not have dependents--for example, people with children might hesitate to risk their lives because they're thinking about what will happen to their kids if they die. They probably were raised with a sense of service to others. They may not necessarily be religious, just have the idea that people are supposed to help others, and they're used to doing that. Most often, though, people who acted heroically were just likely to say, "I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't do something." They would rather die trying to help someone than stand there and and watch others die without helping. We all wish we would be that person, but again, you never know until you know.
Now as to that crowd psychology thing--why do people so often evacuate in such an orderly manner, even when there isn't leadership or training? Why do they go down flights and flights of stairs calmly and steadily without pushing, shoving and screaming? Well, some of it is our friend denial, some is social pressure--everyone else is behaving, so I'm not going to be the one who acts out (there are times when this follow the crowd mentality can turn out badly). Or maybe we're not as bad as we seem to be sometimes.
And I guess that brings us back to the crowded subway platform on a hot summer day, where people stand fanning themselves, taking off whatever clothes they can, turning up their headphones more. No one screams, cries, or snaps at the person standing next to them for getting just a little too close; instead, he or she just shifts away quietly and tries to burrow themselves into the belief that this too will pass, and someday the train will come, and until then there is nothing that can be done. And if anyone lets the wild animal in themselves get out--fights, screams, pushes, then we are all doomed, and no one wants to cross that line over something so insignificant as a slow to come train. Better late than never.
And a cute puppy and kitten picture, just because this topic has been so grim.