The Psychology of Survival

August 23, 2010
Shrink Rap

Shrink Rap's ClinkShrink explores what being trapped for months must do to one's psychological state.

This article originally appeared on Shrink Rap.

I read this BBC story recently about the Chilean miners trapped for 17 days, who now face months of waiting underground while a rescue tunnel is dug. Although they are all physically well and expected to survive, they face the psychological challenge of waiting for rescue from the cave.

This story resonated with me because lately I've been hearing a lot about a new book, No Way Down, which was featured on NPR along with some other mountain disaster books. No Way Downcovered the story of several teams of mountain climbers who were stranded on K2 when an icefall cut their ropes. Most of the climbers died although a few managed to pick their way back to base camp.

Survival stories have always been popular. Entire television series now feature teams of people pitted against one another to overcome some test or challenge. Disaster movies were popular back in the '70s, when the Towering Inferno, Airport and the Poseidon Adventure let us watch people get picked off one by one.

Why do we love this stuff?

I think it's because these stories reflect humanity's greatest strength, the power of adaptation. Whether we're talking about natural disasters, accidents, the exploration of Colonial American wilderness or longterm science expeditions to Antarctica, the psychology of survival is fascinating because we like the idea that one's mental attitude can make the difference between life or death.

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