Academic ‘disaster scripts’ in a time of disasters

Inger just wrote a really good post over on the Thesis Whisperer blog, about how, right now, we are in the middle of a disaster. Inger and I had a chat about it, and one of the things that stood out for me was our discussion of ‘disaster scripts’. That is, we have ways we behave in a disaster:

In her amazing book The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley talks about how humans react to disaster situations. In a series of stories about hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis, Ripley details our physiological reactions to immediate danger and the effects of extreme stress on the body, particularly how we make decisions in a crisis. (‘The Valley of Deep (COVID) Shit’, Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer blog)

You might have had a chance to learn a lot of scripts: perhaps the one about crossing the road, or the one about safely exiting an aircraft. Every time we do a fire drill, we are practicing a disaster script. At school we learned disaster scripts about not taking sweets from strangers. My parents and peers taught me scripts about how to travel alone at night. This is how fairy stories and folk tales work, it’s embedded in our rituals and songs.

A disaster script is not a talisman — it doesn’t stop bad things happening to you, and it doesn’t stop the outcome of a disaster being disastrous. It just gives you a practiced way to react in a crisis that maybe gives you a chance to survive.

Disaster scripts are most useful where you have an early warning system, which gives you a chance to act. Because of the sorts of places I’ve lived, my parents and my communities taught me a disaster script for a typhoon, and one for a bush fire. I learned a script for when someone sights a salt water croc, and for when there are landslides cutting off the road. I learned a script for when high winds means the barge can’t make it to the island and there is no fresh food this week. All of these are disasters that I can know about in advance. If I pay attention to the warning levels or the road signs or the weather report… I can be prepared.

I’ve also lived in places with scary health disasters: places where hepatitis, Swine Flu or SARS were common, so when the current epidemic struck, my partner and I realised we swung into the checklist of actions you ‘always take’ in these situations–we had a script. (Yes, staying home when you are sick, washing your hands, coughing into your elbow, reducing shaking hands or sharing food are generally good ideas, regardless of the outbreak!)

Because that was my life growing up, I thought everyone had these super-useful disaster scripts. But as I’ve worked in student advising for over a decade now, I’ve discovered that while many people do, many other people have unhelpful disaster scripts, that put them in more danger and stress. 

It’s okay if your scripts aren’t helpful yet, because recognising that you would like to change a script is the most challenging part. Once you have that ‘ahah!’ moment, teaching yourself a new script is pretty easy — it takes a bit of persistence, but it’s not like differential equations or Linear A or writing sestinas.

I’m going to talk about three kinds of less helpful script; and then I’m going to talk about what you can do if you’d like a new script.

Unhelpful Disaster Script 1: Literally no idea, so… panic?
Some people have honestly never thought about how things work, or how things might be different from how they are now. Things that work ‘just work’ and have become invisible. Perhaps you’ve never had to think about toilet paper supply chains, or communicable diseases, or whatever. So when things happen, you have to work out how to react in the moment.
And humans are pretty bad at reacting in the moment. (Inger’s post covered this pretty thoroughly).  The moment of high stress is a moment when we can react swiftly, but our creative and problem-solving skills are at their minimum. So making something up in a crisis moment is likely just to mean that we decided to do something unhelpful, very fast.

Unhelpful Disaster Script 2: The Castastrophising script
Some people’s disaster scripts don’t match up with the dangers of real life. They might invent disasters that are never going to happen, like kids who spend months calculating how to deal with a velociraptor attack (normal behaviour for children, not helpful once you are an adult). Or people take things that are likely to happen, and blow them out of proportion. If you have ever decided that a friend leaving your text message unanswered means they now hate you, instead of them just being busy or distracted, then that’s the kind of script I mean.
The reason these scripts aren’t helpful is because they lead you to act in ways that don’t promote efficiency or wellbeing. You are more likely to cause damage to healthy relationships and processes by inventing catastrophes. A good disaster script helps you to deal with what happens if you actually do have a problem, a bad script creates a problem.

Unhelpful Disaster Script 3: The Incompatible learned script
Some scripts are excellent in their own way, but cause issues when you deploy them for the wrong kind of problem. Knowing the difference between the fire alarm and the shelter-in-place alarm is essential — one script involves calmly leaving the building, and the other script involves calmly staying inside the building. Using an incompatible script can put you in greater danger.
Higher Education regularly involves individual and corporate disasters. A couple of failed grant applications and the lab has to close, putting everyone out of work. A restructure of a university, and an institution-full of jobs are on the line. Yet-more government cuts, and we trim a bit more off the budget and put in some more hours to cover the gap. So our usual script is ‘rise to the challenge and over-perform and push through’. This often works, though not always.
In a situation where we are seeing the possibility of a whole global economy collapse, and deep danger to the university sector in particular… let alone the fact that many people won’t make it at all… means that ‘rise to the challenge and over-perform and push through’ is not going to help in this disaster.

At this point, you can wonder if it’s worth bothering. I personally think it’s always worth having a go at turning the dial towards the future you want to create, and it’s always worth acting according to your true values. So yes, it is worthwhile to practice or learn some helpful disaster scripts that guide your steps in this time. Even if you don’t achieve your goals, you tried to act in a way that helped rather than harmed.

So: what do you do if you realise you’ve been playing out an unhelpful script?

Well, first of all, well done for noticing! This is the biggest challenge, and you’ve already cleared it.

Secondly, you don’t need to make up a new script from scratch. Following the advice from the WHO and other reliable sources will give you some good tips. If you are already practicing social distancing, then you have already learned a new script that is saving lives every day!

Thirdly, in unprecedented situations we don’t actually know what the best scripts are, so none of our scripts are particularly practiced yet, but good enough scripts are good enough.

Finally, recognise that disaster scripts only work for individual scenes, not whole plays. In a fast-moving situation like this one, you can’t be sure that if we do X then Y will definitely happen. So don’t try to map out an entire campaign. A script is a single tool.
So ‘how I keep teaching my classes even though we are now online’, and ‘how I stay safe and connected with the people I care about in isolation’ and ‘what is my exit strategy if my industry collapses’ are all going to be new scripts you’ll need–and probably many more. The bigger the disaster, the more complex it is. You’ll need a tool box. (Remember to share your tools with others!)

Finally, it doesn’t matter how you feel or how polished you are at carrying out a script in an emergency like this. It’s what you do that matters. If you restock the First Aid Kit, it doesn’t matter if you cry or your hands shake. You don’t have to feel calm, but you do have to stop yourself stampeding for the plane exits. You don’t have to be grateful or graceful, but you do have to avoid hurting other people.

I hope this is helpful. It maybe would have been more useful if I’d written it before the emergency… but here is a tool from my tool-box that might help you get through. Thank you to everyone who shares their tools and teaches me.


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