Skip to Main Content

Survival Psychology

Survival Psychology According to John Leach



Author: Catherine Guilbeau

It is an unfortunate truth that disasters, whether natural or man-made, occur and force people into situations of high anxiety that often lead to death. John Leach, a psychologist in the field of survival psychology at the University of Lancaster, has observed, however, that people in these situations often die unnecessarily. This surprising and seemingly unusual statement has led Leach to pursue the question of why in an identical survival setting, some people die and others don't. In his studies, Leach has identified cognitive processes, particularly working memory, which inhibit one's ability to survive in a situation of extreme anxiety. Leach's findings have ultimately led to the opinion that "it is not the 'will-to-live,' but the 'won't to live' that matters" in a survival situation (Survival, 26).

The phenomenon of 'freezing' when faced with a disaster is a new and foundational concept brought to survival psychology by Leach. Although previously, psychologists have believed a threatening situation results in either a 'fight' or 'flight' response, Leach argues 'freezing' is a third response of victims which often leads to unnecessary deaths. In 2004, Leach conducted an experiment to further understand the causes of this 'freezing' behavior. Witnesses from maritime and aircraft disasters were interviewed and asked to discuss the various reactions of other passengers. Although some passengers took leadership positions and moved in proper evacuation manners, maritime survivors reported seeing passengers "'sitting in corners, incapable of doing anything,'...while others seemed to be paralyzed, staring and horrified" or "petrified and could not be forced to move." Similarly, aircraft survivors reported passengers who were "'behaviorally inactive'" and others who "were seen to remain in their seats until they became engulfed in flames" (Why, 3). It is therefore clear from these results that a 'freezing' response is often elicited from victims in addition to a 'fight' or 'flight' reaction.

From these eye witness accounts, Leach concluded that "the tendency to freeze can be understood in terms of neurocognitive function" and its relationship to "the time required to process the several steps between perception and appropriate action." He explains that working memory, which processes operational information, has important limitations, particularly that "it can hold only so much information at any given time," and that "it can process information at a given maximum rate and no faster" (Why, 5). These limitations become inhibitors to survival when anxiety consumes space in working memory that is needed to process complex cognitive tasks. As one might assume, "the more complex the cognitive task, the more expansive the neural circuitry needed, and the more likely that processing time will exceed" the time a victim has available. Leach found that a victim not only needs more time for cognitive processing due to anxiety and complex tasks, but "non-optimal circumstances...may further slow information processing." He therefore concluded that because the working memory capacity is limited by anxiety, victims are unable to process complex cognitive operations quickly enough to react and survive (Why, 6). This cognitive problem, according to Leach, results in many victims 'freezing' in the face of danger and dying unnecessarily.

In addition to studying 'freezing' behavior, in 2007, Leach questioned the maladaptive behavior that is often displayed by victims in a disaster. Victims' responses have been previously observed as often "disorganized, inappropriate to the circumstances, slow in response or a combination" (Impairment, 643). Additionally, it is understood that "survival requires the ability to cope under conditions of environmental duress" and therefore "requires a capacity to interact flexibly with that environment in a goal-directed manner" which "is dependent upon the ability to control attention" (Impairment, 648). Because of the imperative ability to control attention, Leach's experiment involved Royal Air Force members being tested three times using sub-components of the Test of Everyday Attention during a military survival exercise. The attention test was performed forty eight hours prior to deploying into the field, between twelve and twenty four hours of first deploying into the field, and seventy two to ninety six hours after field deployment.

Leach's results indicated that "sustained attention was found to be impaired in the experimental group" in both the second and third sessions of testing. Additionally, "the experimental group showed no recovery in performance to their original baseline measure" when measured ninety six hours after their field deployment (Impairment, 649). Leach again discusses the importance of working memory in survival for it "involves the application of attention to maintain or suppress information." Therefore, when in a disaster situation, a victim is forced to use working memory to complete goal directed tasks necessary for survival while also using it to keep distractions out and sustain attention. As a result, attentional capacity is often reduced due to sensory properties in the environment and maladaptive behaviors such as action slips occur. Leach concludes that the distractions of the disaster consequently cause a victim to move "away from goal directed tasks and towards stimulus-driven acts." Consequently, when a victim lacks the attentional capacity to maintain goals, behavior becomes "disorganized, preservative, or otherwise inappropriate," and most often leads to unnecessary death (Impairment, 650).

Also in 2007, Leach conducted an experiment involving parachutists to further understand the restrictions in working memory due to anxiety. In particular, Leach studied 'no pull fatalities' in hopes to identify why they occur. 'No pull' fatalities take place when experienced parachutists fail to deploy the emergency parachute after the main parachute canopy malfunctions. For this experiment, Leach measured the heart rate, and storage and processing capacities of both novice and experienced parachutists. Additionally, Leach measured these aspects ten minutes before jumping, immediately after landing, and on a non-jump day. As expected, the most prominent difference between the novice and experienced groups occurred in the landing phase. This difference occurred when "experienced parachutists showed full recovery in operation-span performance on landing" and novice parachutists performed similarly upon landing as they did before jumping. The heart rate of both groups, however, was nearly identical upon landing which does not reflect the differences in their test results. Most interesting, was the unexpected result that when recalling words as required by their tests, no incorrect responses were given by either group in the phase ten minutes prior to jumping (Restrictions, 154).

From these results, Leach was able to further understand the affects of anxiety on working memory and surprisingly on long term memory (LTM) as well. Just as he observed in previous experiments, Leach found the speed of cognitive processing decreased because of a reduction in working memory capacity. Consequently, the executive system takes longer to switch its attention to deploying the emergency parachute and unfortunately, "the extra time required is insufficient to meet the task." In addition to this speed issue, the finding that no incorrect responses were given immediately before jumping suggests that "LTM is not being accessed during threat." Leach suggests the possibility that a "malfunction of the executive system disables the communication channels linking working memory to LTM" resulting in "an inability to recall stored information from LTM and an inability to lay down new information." From this experiment, Leach was unable to discern whether the slowing of cognitive processes or lack of connection to the LTM led to 'no pull' fatalities. Regardless of this uncertainty, Leach's further confirmation of problems in working memory as well as access to LTM, aid in survival psychologists' search for an answer to the question of why people die when it is unnecessary.

Survival psychology, though a new and mostly undiscovered field, utilizes the benefits of both a scientific and humanistic approach to understand how people react in disaster situations. John Leach has conducted numerous experiments to further identify the limitations of cognitive functioning during times of extreme anxiety in hopes to increase the number of survivors. Although thus far, Leach has only begun to identify the limitations in working memory that lead to 'freezing', lack of attentional control, and denial of access to LTM, innovative ideas to improve chances of survival are already being discussed. Leach has proposed numerous improvements in training and equipment to help turn long term memories and complex cognitive tasks into simple cognitive operations and therefore open the working memory up for thinking. Ultimately, Leach along with other psychologists, strive to provide individuals with the means to most quickly and appropriately address a disaster and therefore eliminate the unnecessary deaths of so many victims.

Works Cited

Leach, John, and Louise Ansell. "Impairment in Attentional Processing in a Field Survival

Environment." Applied Cognitive Psychology 22 (2008): 643-52. Wiley InterScience. Web.

Leach, John, and Rebecca Griffith. "Restrictions in Working Memory Capacity during Parachuting: A Possible Cause of 'no Pull' Fatalities." Applied Cognitive Psychology 22.2 (2008): 147-57. Print.

Leach, John. "Personality Profiles of Potential Prisoners of War and Evaders." Military Psychology 14.1 (2002): 73-81. Print.