Disaster Preparedness: How Group Psychology Plays a Role in Survival


When disaster strikes, you need to be prepared.  What would you do if you had to live off the grid for a couple weeks?  How about a month?  Are you ready?  Often those in subjected to extraordinary circumstances in an emergency bond together to form small groups who work together – and group psychology tends to play an important role in survival.  So, whether you are technically a “prepper” or not, every person carries some inherent survival characteristics that kick into gear when disaster strikes.

What is disaster preparedness, anyway?

It’s important to note that the term disaster preparedness means different things to different people.  To some, it means having enough food and water to last for several days, but to others, it means being able to find the resources and wherewithal to survive when there really aren’t any resources at all.  This might include knowing how to create or find potable water, how to make a solar oven, knowing which plants and insects are edible, how to build a shelter, and how to stay warm in the extreme cold.  In an emergency situation, though, you may not always be paired with someone of like kind.  Groups come together to pool resources and knowledge, and this means that we are sometimes grouped together out of necessity, rather than choice.


Long-Term Survival

Long-term survival can be quite different than short-term situations, so because of the extended period over which this occurs I will begin there.  For instance, earthquakes are natural disasters that occur without warning, allowing no time for evacuation prior to the event.  They tend to be devastating.  Should a major earthquake occur, emergency services may be unable to reach you; you may have no electricity, little food, and a minimal amount of uncontaminated water.  There may only be one structurally sound building left on your street, and three families may be stuck living together long-term – up to a month or more.  This is one instance where group psychology plays a huge role in how this unintended new “family” gets along. 

Merging three smaller groups into a larger group will present significant challenges.  Will they be immersed in group think, where a group has such similar thoughts that they tend to suppress any dissent or disorder?  Or will polarization occur, where there is just so much energy directed toward an outcome that it moves swiftly and quickly, regardless of whether the decision is unanimous or not?  Believe it or not, both are extreme psychological positions which carry their own risks and their own benefits.

When it comes to group think, the benefits here lie in that the group tends to live more harmoniously.  Deeply religious people generally have a larger peace about them, partly because they believe in a higher power and derive a sense of comfort from it.  If the entire group is religious, it is a bonding point that allows for better communication to be facilitated.  However, without a leader, there can be no real structure to the unit, which makes long-term survival situations more tense and potentially destructive.


On the other hand, while a polarized group may have the edge on decision making and swift task completion, it leaves the door open for extreme conflict.  A polarized, long-term survival group will ultimately “steam roll” those in disagreement, and may cause a build-up of sociological and psychological pressure that may result in dangerous physical confrontations.

 It is because of the extremes that exist in group psychology that true disaster preparedness must include a plan to deal with, and avoid, unnecessary conflict within the group.  Since the group is interdependent, it is important that someone take charge, delegate tasks and create some form of order, all while recognizing every member’s relevance.


 Short-term Survival

The best example of a short-term survival situation would be the occurrence of major storm or hurricane.  While power is generally lost and there may be  great structural damage or flooding that makes re-habitation impossible, there are generally warnings before these events occur, and people tend to be more prepared for them.  This early preparation  – like boarding up windows, sand-bagging, stocking up on water and food supplies, and getting their generators ready – is often performed by the entire community, which makes the recovery a little less difficult to deal with.

Still, in a short-term survival situation you may still find yourself in a similar situation as long-term groups.  You may end up pairing with another couple or family in order to pull your resources, but your propensity to get along is increased because short-term survivalists always have a “light at the end of the tunnel” in sight.


psychology2Group Psychology’s Ultimate Impact on Survival

Whether in a short-term or a long-term survival situation, the psychological health of the group plays an important role in the success of the newly established “ family.”  It’s important to keep a balance among the group.   Without it, you will find that some members of your group will eventually go a little crazy, and upset the unification you worked so hard to establish.  

If you ever find yourself in one of these situations, it’s best to remember that as long as every member feels relevant, and there are goals for the group to work toward, you can establish a healthy group psychology that will weather any kind of disaster.

Author: B. Green

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