Posted by: Daisy Luther | on April 8, 2014
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Acceptance – People then accept that this crisis is indeed occurring.
- 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.
- 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.