The Survivor’s Club – A Book Review


Despite our disproportionate fear of improbable disasters and the awe we hold those who survive them there is relatively little research into the psychology of what we collectively call the survivor. This might be because the term is so widely applied and too many factors seem to be involved for any single expert in one discipline to consider a connection. Rather than find one unifying principle, Ben Sherwood sees different survivor personalities, but each of them possess at least some of 12 common survival tools. “The Survivor’s Club” is a broad study into the “science” behind what makes certain individuals defy the odds and continue living. It is written for a mainstream readership by a writer whose only relevant qualifications only lie in journalism and economics. Sherwood’s career success is based mainly in his work for television and his bestselling novels. However, his research is extensive and a good number of his sources are highly respected scientists and peer reviewed studies.

The book looks at the theories behind intuition and survivor behaviour. The latter area is apparently taught to certain professionals, such as airline attendants, who look for the most likely individuals who will do the right thing in a crisis. He introduces the “10-80-10″ rule – out of 100 people 10 of them will do the right thing, 80 of them with freeze like “statues in a storm” and await orders, and 10 will panic and do the wrong thing. Like Dan Gardner did in “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear” (aka “The Science of Fear”) Sherwood is quick to deliver statistics that assuage irrational fears of such things as flying. However, unlike Gardner, Sherwood is not pushing a sceptical argument. He has his beliefs and we will come to them a little later.

As well as providing valuable insight into the minds of those who choose to listen to safety information as it is provided on aeroplanes prior to take off and eventually an insight into your own through his carefully set up survivor personality test, the book also provides interesting tips on survival. It debunks a good number of myths, such as the amount of time you have available to live if you fall in a frozen lake – it’s a lot longer than you think. It also provides interesting trivia, such as the safest place to have a heart attack (here’s a clue, it’s not a hospital!) Sherwood’s survivors are an interesting array of human beings. They include well known survivors like rape victim, Trisha Meili, the “Central Park Jogger” to a man who survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. The book also includes victims of supposed terminal cancer and a man who survived the Twin Towers tragedy in the most incredible of circumstances.

My only quibble with the book is its strong bias towards faith. The author is a man of strong if apparent moderate Christian faith and admits that little research into the faith of other religions has been done to discover whether there is a connection with their beliefs and survival. His assumption that faith is the strongest tool in the survivor’s kit is largely based on the accounts of survivors who wax spiritually about their experiences or in desperation called on a higher power in their moment of need. That and a single study conducted by Texas University and the opinion of a scientist who happens to be religious. To Sherwood’s credit he references the scientific rebuttal about the power prayer and Carl Sagen’s debunking of the apparent miraculous faith healing of Chimayo. Sherwood’s confirmation bias in the respect of these two subjects is a little worrying, so I am grateful that he did feel some balance was required and brought in some good oppositional studies. He isn’t afraid to do this with a number of his subjects, but the whole faith issue essentially boils down to his irrational belief that if you believe that God has a plan for you, you will be saved. It’s really a non-sequitur when you consider how many people who did not survive in certain instances were more than likely believers and also thought God had plans for them as well.

I grew up in a family whose profession was all about taking high risks. We were a circus family and in addition to the perils one might encounter from being constantly on the move, my father was and remains a wild animal trainer and my mother’s family consisted and still consists of a lot of wild animal trainers. Animal attack on humans, even in these circumstances where the risk is increased, are thankfully very rare, but it happens. In addition to that I am a self protection and mixed martial arts coach, where dealing with risk in extreme circumstances is part of the education. So, it is little surprising that a book like this would interest me. For the amount of research and the bringing together of different studies, I would highly recommend it for those who are seriously interested in finding out new information on the age old question of why some people live and others die in certain situations. The survivor profile online test is good fun too and seems to have been put together using an exhaustive amount of research.

The book is full of useful endnotes with references to a wide selection of books and scientific papers. “The Survivor’s Club” is written in an entertaining style blending the author’s quest to find out answers regarding survival with interesting anecdotes of the survivors and the findings of experts in the field.