Human Adaptation to Danger

University dissertation from Swedish National Defence College, Järnvägsgatan 6, SE-652 25 Karlstad

Abstract: The overall purpose of the thesis was to increase knowledge concerning how people adapt psychologically when faced with a real danger incident, and what implications these reactions and adaptation mechanisms have upon immediate performance. The thesis is based on three empirical studies concerning people with personal experience of dangerous incidents. Swedish peacekeeping personnel who were involved in shooting incidents or other highly threatening events participated in two of these studies. Swedish citizens who were living in Kobe, Japan, during the earthquake of 1995 participated in the third study. Retrospective self-reports included both qualitative and quantitative approaches. More specifically, the research questions focused on the subjective descriptions of personal reactions and performance during dangerous situations, the frequency of various reactions, and the individual and situational factors that influence reactions and functioning. On a general level, all groups seem to have performed well during the dangerous encounters they experienced. Severely dysfunctional reactions were rare, but general feelings of invulnerability were commonly reported. During these threatening situations, a partial loss of emotional balance and cognitive functioning was also common. Different individual and situational factors appeared to interact with reactions and performance. Factors that were associated with lower performance included whether the danger incident implied a loss of control or if it demanded complex cognitive activity. A fourth and purely theoretical study addressed how assumptions from Darwian, Freudian, and cognitive psychology are supported by empirical disaster research in explaining why people occasionally fail to adapt when danger is present. It was suggested that the different theories could be integrated into a model, in which adaptation mechanisms on different psychological levels could be included; from processes that are consciously controlled to automatic processes.

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