The stress caused by an emergency situation impairs people's attentional control, leaving them unable to pursue the actions necessary for their survival. That's according to John Leach and Louise Ansell who said their research helps explain "at least one anomaly that exists in survivorship: why so many people perish when there is no need". The pair cite the example of air crash passengers who fail to withhold inflating their life-jackets until the appropriate time, thus imperilling their lives.
Leach and Ansell tested the cognitive abilities of 14 RAF crew while they were out on a two-week survival exercise in Northern England. The exercise simulated an "aircraft down incident" and took place during the Winter with conditions of hail and snow.
A task that required the crew to identify locations on a map was used as a measure of selective attention. This showed that, once deployed in the field, the crew were impaired when compared against a control group of colleagues back at base, and also against their own classroom-based performance prior to the survival exercise. Their ability recovered after about three days in the field.
Once deployed, the crew also showed impaired sustained attention. This was measured by their ability to spot lottery numbers appearing in a boring ten-minute read-out of numbers.
"This form of cognitive impairment makes flexible interaction with the survival environment difficult and the victim’s behaviour becomes dominated by environmental cues at the expense of wilful, goal-directed survival behaviour," the researchers concluded. "The often witnessed result is of a victim who is cognitively unable to aid his own survival."
Leach, J., Ansell, L. (2008). Impairment in attentional processing in a field survival environment. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(5), 643-652. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1385