Tales of human survival in extreme conditions have always been viewed as heroic and tend to put the everyday person in awe.  We recall books and movies like “Lone Survivor”, the story of U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, or “Alive”, where members of the Uruguayan rugby team survived a plane crash in the Andean mountains by going to extreme measures to prevent starvation. There are hundreds of other stories about unbelievable survival in prisoner-of-war camps, stranded on a lifeboat or trapped in a collapsed building.

“There’s a lot of quit in that boy!”
–Ron White

What makes these people so different and how do they face down a presumed death, but live through events where others quickly die?  We see these survivors with a quality of strength, a depth of will-power and focused drive to overcome any physical and psychological challenge.  We tend to call it the “will-to-live.”

Survival experts always point out how essential it is for survivors to have the “will-to-live.”  Experts have been trying for decades to pinpoint this “will-to-live” gene buried within a survivor’s emotional mindset, something in their DNA that creates a unique physical state or is it a unique character trait. To date, no personality profiles have emerged to help doctors and scientists pursue a path to cultivate this “will-to-live” gene.  However, a leading expert in survival says we may be asking the wrong question.

Dr. John Leech, is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom.  He is also a former military “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” (SERE) instructor as well as a combat psychologist.  Dr. Leech says the real question is not, “Why did this person survive?” but “Why did so many other people die when they didn’t need to?”

It’s not the “will-to-live” but the “won’t-to-live” that decides who survives and who does not.  Dr. Leech dissected a 1994 plane crash in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California where one passenger was trapped in the wreckage, and the other had only superficial bruising.  The pilot had injuries to his arm, ankle and ribs. To get help, the pilot walked for 11 days through the snow-covered mountains.  Once found, he advised the downed aircraft location and rescue teams departed immediately.  The rescue teams located the crash site that same day but found the other two people dead.

When the story hit the TV, the pilot was showered with accolades for his strength of endurance, his will-power to walk down from the crash site and his focused drive to survive.  The two passengers however were noted for only having died, nothing more.  Why did they die when they had material to build a shelter for protection and the ability to make a fire for warmth, possibly cooking? They may not have starved to death in 11 days and they had snow for water.  Why did they die after surviving a plane crash when they didn’t need to?  That is the crux of survival psychology.

The age-old perception is that people in an extreme scenario like this die because they become depressed and simply give up. This “giving up” behavior is common among accident survivors.  A mental tipping point is reached inside the brain and the mind accepts the argument that “living is hard and dying is easy” at a certain moment. Dr. Leech calls this a “psychogenic death”, a mental failure in our survival psychology that triggers a biological response whereby the body begins to shut down, even if there are no life-threatening injuries.

This “giving up” behavior was perfectly explained in layman’s terms by Colonel Spencer Chapman in his classic World War II memoir “The Jungle Is Neutral.”  In it he relates the following story:

“I met in the Malayan jungle six Non-Commissioned Officers and their men who had also been cut off from their unit by the Japanese army.  A month later they were all dead. Yet there was nothing wrong with them. In our post-activity debrief, our higher command took the view that the jungle had killed them. I disagreed and stated that their mental attitude had made it impossible for them to adapt themselves to this new way of life and that was what killed them.”

Hence his book title, Chapman argued that “the jungle, is neither for you nor against you, the jungle is neutral.”

No matter what he suffered in the Malayan jungle, Chapman attributed his survival to that basic rule, the environment is neutral. This simple mindset meant that to survive one should accept their surroundings for what they are, they are neither good nor bad, simply neutral. To survive, all one needed to do was expect nothing, accept the dangers and benefits of the environment they were in.  Colonel Chapman’s positive attitude was his most important tool while cut off from his unit.  Colonel Chapman’s state of mind ensured that the physical health of his body and the desire to live were reinforced on a daily basis.

Think about it, people unintentionally enter desert areas, arctic regions and mountain ranges and then die – and they die quickly.  Again, the question is why? After all, there are communities of people who live quite comfortably in all these environments. Each of these environments contain men and women who live and work, experience birth and raise happy intelligent children all the while living comfortably in these locations.

We are day-to-day survivors. From childbirth our behavior has adapted to our own particular environment and the danger comes from being forced outside of that environment.  Dr. Leech documents two types of survival behavior; intrinsic and extrinsic.  Intrinsic survival is our normal behavior in our routine patterns of life within our adapted environment.  Extrinsic survival are those new behaviors needed to survive in an environment or situation not previously experienced.

Extrinsic survival requires goal-directed behavior. However, eye witness testimonies have long suggested that a goal-directed behavior is one of the first functions to fail when people feel trapped and threatened.  It was this observation that led Dr. Leech to a cognitive approach to his survival question. The question became not, “Why do people die when they shouldn’t?” but “How do people die when they don’t need to?” Dr. Leech’s studies produced several answers, but one answer stood out above all others.  Colonel Chapman had come to the same conclusion quite unscientifically over 70 years before that.  Maintain a positive attitude about the situation.

Case Study – The Right Attitude

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker of the U.S. Army Air Service was the most famous American Combat pilot of World War I.  He achieved the title of “Ace of Aces” with 26 confirmed kills in less than eight months of aerial combat (the famed Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen scored his 80 wins over a 2 ½ year period). Capt. Rickenbacker was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Service Crosses, and many other foreign decorations for courage and leadership.  He was also a famous race car driver and early automotive designer.

One of Capt. Rickenbacker’s most famous near-death experiences happened after he returned to civilian life. In October 1942, while serving as the CEO of Eastern Air Lines, he was asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to conduct a motivational and moral tour of military bases in the South Pacific. Captain Rickenbacker, two defense contractors and seven U.S. Army airmen were provided an older B-17 aircraft for transportation, but due to instrument failure, the bomber flew hundreds of miles off course and ran out of fuel, ditching in the central Pacific Ocean and dangerously close to Japanese-held islands. They drifted for over three weeks in life rafts as sharks circled.

Capt. Rickenbacker naturally assumed the leadership role. First, they did an inventory of survival gear recovered from the aircraft. Secondly, they did an inventory of equipment, clothing and pocket contents.  Four days into the ordeal, Captain Rickenbacker captured a seagull that had landed on his head.  He divided the bird up as food between the men and then, used the remaining parts of the bird as fishing bait to provide more sustenance. They captured rainwater in their hats which they lined with raft repair kit patches to reduce soak through of the cotton material.  They sheltered from the sun and slept most of the day, using morning and evening to fish or tell stories.

From time to time the men would lose hope, Captain Rickenbacker encouraged them to believe help was coming, when doom and gloom began to affect somebody, he pushed that man to get mad and reminded them they had loved ones back home waiting for them to return.  After 24 days adrift, they were spotted by a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft and rescued.

An analysis of Capt. Rickenbacker’s methods of motivation during the ordeal demonstrated what many survivor experts call “Survivor Mentality.”  Captain Rickenbacker probably never consciously thought, now is the perfect time to do this or say that.  His survivor mindset was so fine-tuned that conscious intent was never needed.

At an allegorical level, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is a study of survival in contrast where a committee is established with a set of rules in place to maintain order, peace and harmony in a survival setting.  Yet everything begins to break down when the tension between groupthink and individuality rears its ugly head.  As committee rule disintegrates, irrational practices and immorality find the strong preying on the weak. This mindset induces “will to power”, a philosophy developed by Friedrich Nietzsche as a driving force in human beings, where achievement, ambition, and striving to reach the highest position in life (i.e. read survival situation). This is but one negative mentality that weakens a positive psychology for survival.

So, is the evidence presented by Dr. Leech regarding the “won’t-to-live” valid?  Was Colonel Chapman’s observation that “the jungle, is neither for you nor against you, the jungle is neutral” correct?  Was Captain Rickenbacker’s “survivor mindset” developed from his years as a race car driver and his experiences as a combat pilot?  What do all three of these men have in common?  It may be summed up in one of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s lesser known sayings. This quote strips away every excuse for not doing something in a bad situation.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

The Psychology of Survival is among many seminars offered at Trident Response Group. We invite you to come visit us, or contact us via our website to learn more or to schedule a speaking engagement!

“The will to survive is not as important as the will to prevail.”
– Colonel Jeff Cooper USMC