Amanda Ripley

The Unthinkable


Half of Americans have been affected by a disaster of some kind. In big disasters, regular people are the first and most important rescuers on the scene. But very few of us know what to expect until it is too late.

By combining the stories of survivors with research into how the brain works under extreme duress, The Unthinkable tries to bring light into civilization’s darkest moments. Why do we freeze in the middle of a fire? How can we override this instinct? Why do our senses of sight and hearing change during a terrorist attack? Why are most heroes men?

In this inspiring mix of narrative, science and participatory journalism, award-winning Time Magazine writer Amanda Ripley reveals how human fear circuits and crowd dynamics work, why our instincts sometimes misfire in modern calamities, and how we can do much, much better.

The Unthinkable was published in 15 countries including the United States, the UK, Brazil and China. A documentary based on the book, Surviving Disaster with Amanda Ripley, aired on PBS in 2012. The Unthinkable was selected by Hudson Booksellers as one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2008.


Ripley is a voyeur on a mission...Her conviction: We’d all stand a better chance of surviving a disaster if we understood what happens to our little gray cells when things get ugly… Spiced with surprising factoids, this book might save your life one day.

— James Pressley, BLOOMBERG NEWS

A fascinating and useful new book...One of the main lessons is that panic, denial and fear may be inevitable during a disaster, but your brain will perform best in a stressful situation if you have already put it through a few rehearsals.”

— Tara Parker-Pope, THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Engrossing and lucid…An absorbing study of the psychology and physiology of panic, heroism, and trauma...Facing the truth about the human capacity for risk and disaster turns out to be a lot less scary than staying in the dark.”

— Elaina Richardson, O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE


“Much has been said on what people do in emergency situations and disasters. THE UNTHINKABLE gives readers the why. Examining not just professional responders and emergency managers but the survivors themselves, Amanda Ripley provides insights into how people act, or fail to act, in critical situations— lessons no Emergency Manager should ignore.


“The thinking person’s manual for getting out alive.”

— Neda Ulaby, NPR

“Stories…are the fascinating core of THE UNTHINKABLE, Amanda Ripley’s investigation of the science behind victims’ varied and frequently counterproductive actions.”

— Brian Bethune, MACLEAN'S