Three men missing for three days were found on a tiny desert island, CBS News reported. Much like a work of fiction, they were discovered by searchers after writing a giant “SOS” on the beach—in this case, on an unpopulated island near New Zealand. Survival instincts manifest differently for everyone.
According to CBS News, a classic hypothetical scenario played out dangerously for three boaters on July 30. “The men had been missing in the Micronesia archipelago for nearly three days when their distress signal was spotted Sunday [August 2] on uninhabited Pikelot Island by searchers on Australian and U.S. aircraft,” the article said.
“The men had apparently set out from Pulawat atoll in a 23-foot boat on July 30 and had intended to travel about 27 miles to Pulap atoll when they sailed off course and ran out of fuel. The men were found about 118 miles from where they had set out.”
The article said the men were found in good condition and were provided food and water before leaving the island with rescuers. Their survival instincts played a large part in the result of their good condition.
What Is a Critical Incident?
Dr. Nancy Zarse, Professor of Forensic Psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said that survival means encountering and living through a “critical incident.” So what’s a critical incident?
“A critical incident is one which disrupts your psychological homeostasis,” she said. “In a critical incident, your usual coping methods fail; the critical incident causes distress and often dysfunction. It is sudden and unexpected. It disrupts your sense of control as well as your beliefs, your values, and your basic assumptions about life.”
Ultimately, a critical incident involves a damaging life threat, with an emotional trigger or physical loss.
Dr. Zarse said that by its very nature, something that you’re used to dealing with isn’t a critical incident, like traffic. A critical incident must shock you, challenge your perceptions, and threaten you emotionally or physically.
The Actual Events
“The effect of a critical incident depends on a number of factors: the actual event, its intensity, its duration, and its level of unexpectedness,” she said. “It also depends on primary and secondary victimization, the mental health of the victim, and their previous experiences.”
Dr. Zarse said the event’s intensity can change if it’s sudden, like a tornado; or slower, like slowly rising flood waters predicted on the weather forecast several days prior. Duration of a critical incident is far different, ranging from an explosion that lasts several seconds to a building collapse in which someone is trapped under rubble for several days.
“Finally, did you expect it?” she asked. “Being shot at when you’re knowingly engaging in battle is different from being shot at when you’re watching a concert or a movie.”
Which is not to say that any critical incident is trivial compared to another. The event circumstances simply are different.
“Primary and secondary victimization are also pieces of the critical incident puzzle,” Dr. Zarse said. “Primary victimization is when the event happens directly to you; secondary victimization is when you observe it. Now, both can have a powerful effect, but the extent of that effect can vary based on whether you were directly involved, or you witnessed it.”
Not the Actual Events
While the actual event and your level of victimization are important, both are ultimately out of your control, Dr. Zarse said. The final factors of a critical incident depend on the victim.
“An enormous part of the impact of a critical incident, and by extension your ability to survive it, depends on you, your mental health, and your prior experiences,” she said. “Mental health going into a critical incident plays a crucial role—your mental health encompasses your attitude, your level of functioning prior to the incident (we call this pre-morbid functioning), and your typical reactions.”
Dr. Zarse pointed out that attitude is crucial for your initial response. If you have a positive attitude, are willing to dig in and fight, and believe in your ability to overcome obstacles, you will attain better results in dealing with a critical incident. Your past experiences with crises and physical fitness training also ties into whether you achieve a better outcome.
“This refers to your cumulative body of experiences, but especially any specific personal training like sports or fitness routines, or any relevant professional training, such as police or military experience. You may not have the experiential advantage that an athlete or a firefighter has, but the truth is that everything you’ve lived through every day has been a practice for handling a crisis.
“For the most part, how you live your life dictates how you will respond in a crisis. What’s important is that you recognize the strengths that you’ve developed through your particular set of experiences and think consciously about how you would apply them in a survival situation.”
For the three men in New Zealand, likely to face Gilligan’s Island references for years to come, survival instincts surely played a part in how they handled being stranded.
Dr. Nancy Zarse contributed to this article. Dr. Zarse is a Professor of Forensic Psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, where she also received her PsyD.