Amanda Ripley

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Human Behavior 700 m Underground

23rd Sep 2010 posted in General

If you turned the Empire State Building on its head and drilled it into the ground, you’d be about as deep into the Earth as the 33 miners trapped in a void in Chile since Aug. 5. What is happening down there? What will happen in a month when the men are rescued, as it seems likely they will be?

My Time colleague Jeff Kluger has a fascinating story about this in the Sept 20 issue. He writes about the importance of groups and leaders in these kinds of disasters—and about the civilizing influence of small tokens of normalcy.

“One of the first thing the men requested when a communication link was established was toothbrushes, and they’ve since been sent clean clothes and razors….Tidiness translates into discipline, and that can be lifesaving. ‘I talked to leaders in Vietnam who would take men into the jungle for 40 days at a time,’ says [West Point psychologist Col. Tom] Kolditz. ‘Every day the men would have to wash off their face paint and shave. That creates civility, and civility prevents conflict and even atrocities.’”

To learn more about how groups have functioned in past mining disasters, check out this detailed 2000 study (warning: PDF) on human behavior in underground fires. As I discuss in The Unthinkable, men in mining disasters (just like all humans in all disasters) tend to form groups and experience a profound desire to stay with the group at almost any cost. As the report details, this phenomenon may be even more powerful in mines, where hierarchy and rules are deeply embedded in the normal workplace culture.

These kinds of prolonged disasters have predictable phases. The first is the initial period of fear and uncertainty, followed by a kind of euphoria when it becomes clear that death has been averted. Now the miners are enduring what may be, in some ways, the most grueling phase. They have clean clothes and food, but the euphoria is long gone. The miners’ requests for wine and cigarettes have been denied, much to their annoyance. Recently, one of the miners returned a shipment of canned fruit in protest. Girlfriends of some of the married miners have allegedly begun showing up at the site, requesting financial compensation, which one can only presume makes for an intense conversation during the one-minute video conferences the miners get to have with their families.

If and when the miners are successfully rescued, the next phase will be another round of euphoria—followed, as the Washington Post foreshadows today, by a disorienting and surreal media circus:

“A half-dozen documentaries are in production - including the Discovery Channel’s look at the mechanics of the rescue and a planned HBO program. Tabloids are reaching out to families, offering thousands of dollars for the first interview, and hotels in the usually sleepy mining town of Copiapo are full….A ‘media platform’ half the size of a football field has been built at the scene to accommodate the estimated 500 to 1,000 reporters expected to flood the usually abandoned corner of the Atacama Desert.”

Thankfully, psychologists are working to prepare the men for this period, conveying lessons in how to talk to reporters and how to manage money. If history is any guide, the miners will do better if they try to maintain cohesion as a group—and resist the media’s powerful urge to personalize and elevate individual members and their stories. This will be hard to do, but as the 2000 report concluded, it is the way groups like this function best—above and below ground:

“...n this environment, as in others where group survival is problematic, there is little tolerance for personal aggrandizement. Rather, a lot of concern is focused on the ideals of shared expectations and coordination of efforts.”