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The psychology of survival: the need for resilience Guest Contributor Ken Hughes - April 9, 2021

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On the 19th of September 2017, I arrived in the early hours of the morning to Mexico City, due to perform the next day at an EXMA marketing conference. Around noon I left my room on the 12th floor of the Hilton hotel to find a local café for some lunch, returning an hour later. I had just sat down to check some emails when the room started to move and shake. It took me about 30 seconds to process what was happening. Is this real? What should I do? How serious might this be?

Time to Survive

Instinct took over. I grabbed my passport and phone, threw open my bedroom door and located the nearest emergency stairwell exit. I took those 12 floors (24 flights of stairs) at speed, pivoting using the handrail, 3 steps per floor. Step, stair return, step. As I descended the stairs, the plaster ceiling was collapsing, raining dust and fragments down as the 7.1 Richter scale earthquake rippled through the city. At one point, an entire floor-to-ceiling window imploded just as I was passing it. I didn’t stop to look. Until I was out of that building in clear open space, I was in survival mode.

In previous blogs, making sense of where we are socially and psychologically, I have discussed the Psychology of Captivity and the Psychology of Recovery. Today, to understand where consumers and business are and need to be, we are going to look at the Psychology of Survival, how we are going to make it out of this stronger and wiser.

He Who Dares, Wins

We tend to focus and be fascinated by survival stories, of those, who despite the odds, make it through the unthinkable. Climber Joe Simpson (‘Touching the Void’ – Vintage Publishing) falling to his certain death, already with a badly broken leg, into a crevasse. Over the coming days, starving and frostbitten, clawing his way out alone and down the slopes, across snow and rock to base camp. Or the Uruguayan rugby team, eating the flesh of their dead friends to survive the plane crash in the Andean mountains (‘Alive’ – J.B. Lippincott Company). Or José Alvarenga, the Salvadoran fisherman who spent 14-months adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a tiny fishing boat (‘438 Days’ – Pan Macmillan), surviving on rainwater and catching sea gulls and turtles with his bare hands. These stories fascinate us, and much research has been done on the qualities of those who survive such ordeals, an event that should have ended their lives.

10 key attributes to build into our own business survival

Some of the arising attributes from these survival studies are obvious, and ones that we would do well to build into our own business survival as this pandemic stretches beyond the one-year mark. Here are ten aspects you should be thinking about and also instilling in your teams and business culture:

1.Adaptability

The ability to adjust quickly when presented with a new situation, altering your attitude and behaviours to the new reality.

Adaptability is about turning our back on the behaviours of the past and rapidly embracing the new. It’s what sets survivors. apart from those that cannot accept the new reality. Design business process with a hunger for adaptability. The AirBnB rapid pivot to Online Experiences is a good example.

2.Resilience

The ability for a material to hold form regardless of the stresses placed on it.

This is not just about elasticity (similar to adaptability above) but also perseverance, the drive to keep going. Invest in your team regularly. Think Aron Ralston’s story (127 Hours – Atria books) of his time in the Utah desert pinned under a boulder, finally sawing his own arm off to escape. You don’t get through those 5 days and still have the mental and physical strength to amputate your own arm with a pocket knife without resilience.

3.Hope (Faith)

Hope is the combination of optimism and realism – a desire to survive despite the odds, an intrinsic belief.

Those who are religious often will place their faith in a higher power (God) and this belief also drives them forward. Instil hope in business strategy and approach. Joe Simpson had to hope that his climbing partner was still at base camp, despite Simon assuming Joe had fallen to his death into that crevasse. It was this hope that kept him moving.

4.Purpose

The reason to live, your reason to succeed. Without a purpose, people lose hope and direction.

Make sure you are clear on your business purpose to get through the crisis. Frankl (‘Mans Search for Meaning’ – Beacon Press) clearly states that having a purpose in the Holocaust camps was key to his survival. Make sure you and your team know their purpose through these times.

5. Love

A variation of the above (purpose), but one that focuses the mind – people will often do anything for those they love.

Foster something like the unbreakable bonds that exist with family and friends within your business. The aforementioned José, afloat in the pacific, kept his young teenage daughter in mind for those 14-months, his love and desire to see her again keeping him going.

6.Empathy

Often helping others in a crisis not only helps the recipient but also rewards the giver with further purpose.

Soldiers often fought to protect the colleague in the trenches next to them, not the country or greater good. Encourage an empathetic approach to customers and colleagues which will benefit all.

7. Intelligence

The ability to acquire and use knowledge to solve problems, to diagnose, analyse, and act appropriately.

Survival is about making decisions that are based on new available data and having the knowledge in terms of how to best apply that data in action. Bill Garleb, an ex-Japanese PoW tells a story of boarding a train box car to camp. The prisoners elbowed and shoved forward, anxious to get a space to lie down in the car. Garleb noticed there was little ventilation in the box car and allowed himself to be shoved aside, becoming the last man to board, taking a space by the door. 26 prisoners suffocated on that journey, but Galeb acted appropriately to the data available to him and survived.

8.Ingenuity

This is about being clever, inventive and resourceful.

It is the combination of adaptability and intelligence, the inventive application of the same information but with an eye to consequence or outcome. The choice to eat their dead colleagues and friends to stay alive in the Andes was horrendous, but was also resourceful and necessary to survive. You join the dots in whatever form that takes to survive.

9.Flow

The ability to move forward, effortlessly, steadily, relentlessly and with ease.

To survive you need to keep moving. This is true of every climber passing through Everest’s Death Zone. Survival is about one step in front of the other, continuously. Sit down for a rest, and the lack of oxygen at that height results in a brain fog where you are unlikely to ever get moving again. Bodies remain strewn throughout the death zone to this day, evidence of what happens when you lose flow in moments of peril.

10.Instinct

The ability to simply act, the power of intuition. It is what the gut tells the person to do, what feels right.

This is a bit more of an X-Factor quality, but often your first instinct can be what matters in survival. I didn’t have to wait to be told to evacuate that hotel during that Mexican earthquake. I was out on the street in less than a minute, survival instinct driving my decisions.

A lot of these qualities are often summarised into the ‘will-to-live’ argument. That the difference between those that survive and those that don’t is a powerful ‘will-to-live’.

I Think I’ll Do Nothing

However, high-lighting the qualities of the survivor is not actually the point of this article. Research into survival psychology shows that in extreme situations, only 15% of people show such survival qualities listed above. They are the exception. An astounding 75% do nothing at all (the remaining 10% act irrationally putting everyone else in danger)

So, the question really becomes, not why and how we survive, but why so many of us do nothing to help ourselves in dangerous situations. The parallel that is important here, is that many businesses are being run in this fashion at present, not fully embracing the danger the pandemic truly brings to their business models. They are awaiting the return to a ‘normal’ that no longer exists. By doing nothing, they are slipping away, unbeknown to themselves. They have taken a short rest in Everest’s Death Zone, content they’ll get going any moment now. They will not.

Our history is full of examples of inactivity, brought about by an impairment of cognitive function when under threat. In 1985, a British Airtours Boeing-737 flight aborted take-off at Manchester airport after a loud explosion. The plane was already off the runway and stopped as the arising engine fire started to sweep through the plane. While emergency evacuation systems were reviewed post this tragedy, the investigation found that some passengers remained immobile in their seats until overtaken by the smoke and toxic fumes, arising in 55 deaths.

Or in 1994 as the cruise ferry MS Estonia left Tallin with nearly 1000 on board, heading for Stockholm. When the bow door broke open 6 hours into the journey (through a force-9 gale) the boat took on water, sinking completely within one hour. Even with the storm conditions and rapid nature of the sinking, investigators were shocked at the scale of loss of life. 852 people perished and later reports from the investigation showed that “… a number of people… seem to have been incapable of rational thought or behaviour because of their fear. Others appeared petrified and could not be forced to move. Some panicking, apathetic and shocked people were beyond reach and did not react when other passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them”

Scale model of MS Estonia

More recently, while none of those lost in the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks were to know the probability of building collapse, there was significant hesitation in the initial evacuation post impact of the planes. A study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology found that survivors who did make it out, waited, on average, six minutes before moving to a stairwell, some waiting around for up to half-an-hour carrying on as normal, tidying desks, sending emails or generally hanging around to see what would happen or waiting for others to move first, resulting in crowd passivity.

Fight, Flight or FREEZE

What we are looking at here is known as Cognitive Paralysis, the inability to process and think when fear strikes. It is the oft forgotten fear response after Fight and Flight – it is the Freeze, useful in nature if you are a rodent hiding from a predator who uses movement to locate its prey, but deadly if you are a business in a rapidly changing environment. Standing still is a sure way to die.

Aside from the inability to act, there is also another factor that is clear in the research, that of simply ‘giving up’. This is different to the cognitive impairment above, this is a mental decision to give-in, and it is a very real psychological and physiological state.

In 1994 a light aircraft crashed in the Sierra Nevada. Of the three people on board one passenger was trapped in the wreckage, another had no more than superficial bruising, whilst the pilot had apparent injuries to his arm, ankle and ribs. To obtain help the pilot walked for 11 days through the snow-covered mountains before reaching a road and flagging down a passing car. The alerted rescue services located the crash site. Both the pilot’s companions were dead.

Give-Up-Itis

The usual media attention was given to the feat of endurance of the injured pilot in travelling for 11 days over snow-covered mountains to seek help. His two dead companions warranted no more than a passing sentence in the press. Yet, one of these men had no more than superficial bruising following the crash. So why did he die? Material was there for shelter; fire could be made, water was available and he would not have starved in 11 days. This is the crux of survival psychology.

One view holds that people die because they become depressed and simply give up. In World War II the Japanese called it bura-bura or ‘do-nothing-sickness’, whilst the Americans called it ‘give-up-itis’ from their PoW experiences in Korean and Vietnamese camps. A mental tipping point is reached: living is hard, dying is easy. It’s the Everest Death Zone again, I’ll just have a little rest here. Having a sleep and dying suddenly seems quite attractive.

The professional yachtsman Nick Moloney described in an interview the time when he was swept overboard and became entangled in his harness: ‘I was so tired and in so much pain, there wasn’t even an adrenaline surge. I died that day. I completely gave up the struggle. Mentally I’d lost the will-to-live, and that’s a terrible place to be’.

The concern we should all have is about dealing with pandemic business fatigue. 12-months is a long time to be trading in a challenging environment, and I can see business and brand owners (and employees) nearing the ‘giving up’ stage, just happy to wait it out now, wait for the return to normality. However, failing to keep-in-flow may result in your business failing to survive this.

Focus on Your Goals

Survival requires goal-directed behaviour. However, witness testimonies in survival research seems to suggest that such goal-directed behaviour is the first function to fail when under threat. The prevailing psychological explanation for these kind of behaviours – passivity, mental paralysis, giving-up or simply carrying on as normal in the face of a crisis – is that they are caused by a failure to adapt to a sudden change in the environment. But in a new, unfamiliar environment, particularly a stressful one such as a sinking ship or a global pandemic, establishing survival goals requires a lot more conscious effort, effort which seems to have waned over the months.

So, instil the qualities of the survivor in yourself and your teams, and be clear on goals and motivation to ensure ‘give-up-itis’ does not set in. Continue to adapt, do not take a rest and wait. It is a long journey, it’s been 12+ months for most of us, but we need to remain strong, resilient and keeping moving forward. Keep challenging business models, keep engaging with customers. Rescue is one-part luck, but mostly hard-work and resilience.

Part II Teaser:

Survival psychology also looks at stressful events across the 5 stages – pre-impact (the impending doom), impact (the event), recovery (actions taken post-event), rescue (the finality) and post-trauma. For the pandemic, the rescue may be in the form of vaccination but the post-trauma fall-out will be the one to watch, for society, consumers and business, which is something we will cover in Past II of this article – The Psychology of Post-Survival.

Thanks to John Leach for his amazing article on ‘Surviving Psychology: The Won’t to Live’ from which I have drawn inspiration and content above.

Ken Hughes is one of the top virtual speakers on the corporate circuit on the psychology of motivation, captivity, recovery and survival. He speaks on the challenges facing consumers, business and society and this blog contains elements of content covered in his new keynote ‘The Big Take Back’

To book Ken for your next virtual event, click here.

Photo credits: Thanh Tran, Li Yang, Kyle Glenn, Daniel Stuben, NKRbeta, Joshua Earle, Jackson Simmer.

Ken Hughes was one of the top speakers on our Mission CX program. This piece is a repost from his personal website kenhughes.info.

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Guest Contributor Ken Hughes

Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer, shopper and cyber shopper behaviour. He is internationally renowned for helping his...