The 90 Second Window and the Mindset of Survival

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Harnessing Panic in Your Favor
Photo by samer daboul from Pexels

It probably won’t happen to you. Statistics show that the odds are in your favor – really, really in your favor.

Harvard University researcher, David Ropeik (2006), noted ”The annual risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about 1 in 11 million.”

Arnold Barnett of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated it this way “A traveler could on average fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal crash (2013).

And if you do happen to be on the one in every 1.2 million ill-fated flights that crashes? According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB, 2001) 95.7 percent of the passengers survive the crash. Furthermore, among even the most serious accidents that include fires, 76.6 percent of the passengers survive.

But rare does not mean never, so if it does happen to you, consider this - you’ve got 90 seconds to get out. 90 seconds to determine your own survival. 90 seconds to make a series of decisions that will save your life . . . or not.

That’s not a lot of time. But with the right mindset, it can be enough.

Research conducted by the FAA and the NTSB concluded that 40 percent of the fatalities that did occur in airplane crashes were potentially survivable, if the passengers had acted appropriately.

The psychology of cognitive processing and decision making can help us understand how our natural ways of thinking can hinder us in emergency situations, and thus, why we need a plan.

Normalcy Bias – The Opposite of Panic

The normalcy bias, or what is commonly referred to by first responders as negative panic, can contribute to unnecessary deaths in disaster situations.

Typically panic has negative connotations – e.g., impulsive, reactionary thinking – and is a state of mind we aspire to avoid. While this may not be the ideal mode of thought in the course of normal life, when we have the luxury of time and relatively minimal consequence in which to operate, it may well have distinct advantages in emergency situations. It ignites our fight or flight survival instinct and propels us into action.

And it is just that which can save us. It is inaction that can be so detrimental to our survival.
Image from Pixabay on Pexels

The infamous Tenerife disaster is the oft-cited example where many passengers who survived the initial impact simply failed to respond and died in the aftermath. Based on in-depth interviews with the 61 survivors of the crash, Psychologist Daniel Johnson (1984) concluded that negative panic led to the deaths of many who would have otherwise potentially survived. They simply did not react quickly enough to the situation around them.

Decision making is a complex operation at the best of times. Processing new sensory information under ideal circumstances takes between 8-10 seconds. Stressful and uncharacteristically novel situations slow the process further. Essentially, under normal conditions the brain searches for associations – similar experiences and past knowledge – to help understand the situation and determine proper action. But when a situation is so complex, so novel and so confusing, the brain struggles to find these associations and their accompanying action plans. When that happens we tend to fixate on small details to the exclusion of other environmental cues. We develop tunnel vision and accept a default solution that does not necessarily fit the rapidly developing situation unfolding before us.

Of course there is variation in individual’s reactions to emergency situations. According to British psychologist John Leach in an article published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, “People caught up in disasters tend to fall into three categories. About 10% to 15% remain calm and act quickly and efficiently. Another 15% or less completely freak out--weeping, screaming or otherwise hindering the evacuation. That kind of hysteria is usually isolated and quickly snuffed out by the crowd. The vast majority of people do very little. They are "stunned and bewildered” (2004, p. 540).

Furthermore, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience (Ghosh, Laxmi & Chattarji, 2013) indicates that as stress increases our brains are wired to discount factual information and instead rely heavily on emotional experiences.

Speaking on the pervasiveness of the normalcy bias and the role of emotion over logic in emergency situations, Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University notes, "Most people go their entire lives without a disaster. So, the most reasonable reaction when something bad happens is to say, This can't possibly be happening to me."

Guylene Proulx, former Researcher in the Fire Research Program at the National Research Council of Canada studied human behavior in fire environments. From various investigations she concluded that the normalcy bias is a typical human response to fire situations. She noted, “Actual human behavior in fires is somewhat different from the ‘panic’ scenario. What is regularly observed is a lethargic response. People are often cool during fires, ignoring or delaying their response” (2002, p. 33).

Our typical patterns of cognitive processing, and their associated limitations, help explain seemingly illogical reactions in disaster situations and highlight the need for a pervasive safety culture that includes survival training. Lives depend on knowing what to do and how to think in those precious 90 seconds.


Barnett, A. (2013). Why you won't die in a plane crash. Retrieved from:

Ghosh, S., Laxmi, T. R., & Chattarji, S. (2013). Functional Connectivity from the Amygdala to the Hippocampus Grows Stronger after Stress. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(17): 7234-7244. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0638-13.2013

Johnson, D. A. (1984). Just in Case. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Leach, J. (2004). Why People ‘Freeze’ in an Emergency: Temporal and Cognitive Constraints on Survival Responses. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 75(6), pp. 539-542.

Proulx, G. (2002). Cool under Fire. Fire Protection Engineering, 16, pp. 33-35

Ropeik, D. (2006). How Risky Is Flying? Retrieved from:

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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