Why we fail to act appropriately in dangerous situations

Allan Milne Lees


Image credit: Manchester Guardian

Impedimenta: Latin plural meaning baggage, luggage, items which impede movement

Everyone with even a passing acquaintance of warfare knows the saying, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Western military personnel stress not individual elements of a plan but rather the overall goal; the means whereby to achieve it will vary wildly depending on how things unfold.

Flexibility is essential, and flexibility means being able to drop one’s preconceptions, hopes, and routine behaviors in order to adapt to whatever happens to be the present — and often unwelcome — reality.

While Western military personnel are drilled in this way of thinking and operating, civilians are accustomed to predictable patterns of life. Thanks to the almost-eight-decades of peace in Europe, and thanks to the material abundance delivered by capitalism combined with semi-free markets, ordinary people are conditioned to feel that life will always carry on much as it has always done, the odd hiccup here and there notwithstanding.

For most people the worst thing they can imagine is losing their phone or not finding their favorite brand of junk food on the supermarket shelves.

It is very, very difficult for people to abandon their modes of thinking and behaving, even when circumstances change in obvious and dramatic ways. The family of Jews in Budapest who adamantly remained in situ as Nazi Germany invaded Hungary are typical of this phenomenon. So attached were they to their desire for their son’s Bar Mitzvah to be a wonderful celebration involving a wide circle of family and friends that they remained focused on the wrong thing — a mistake that resulted in the entire family perishing in the gas chambers.

Every member of a commercial airline cabin crew knows the danger of people trying to retrieve laptops and luggage from overhead compartments when they ought to be entirely focused on evacuating the aircraft. And every fire department knows of people who ran back into burning buildings to rescue photo albums, other mementos, or the family pet, and were caught in the conflagration.

It is exceedingly difficult for us to drop our expectations of the future and…



Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.