Why people 'freeze' in an emergency: temporal and cognitive constraints on survival responses

John Leach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Many witnesses attest that victims of a disaster often perish despite reasonable possibilities for escaping because their behavior during the initial moments of the accident was inappropriate to the situation. Frequently witnesses report victims ‘freezing’ in the face of danger.

Objective: The aim of this paper was to identify the possible factors underpinning ‘freezing’ behavior in disaster victims.

Methods: Witness testimonies, survivor debriefings, and official inquiry reports from shipwreck and aircraft emergencies were analyzed for their behavioral content.

Results: It was found that ‘freezing’ behavior was a frequently cited response by witnesses to a disaster. ‘Freezing’ causes evacuation delays which increase the danger, establishing a closed loop process and further extending evacuation delays. This behavior can be accounted for by considering the temporal constraints on cognitive information processing in a rapidly unfolding, real-time environment.

Conclusion: Cognitive limitations help to explain why survival training works and why there is a need for a survival culture to be developed. They also highlight the need to understand the behavior of children under threat as being different from that of adults due to the different stages of their neurological and cognitive development. There are implications for the development of proactive, rather than passive, life support equipment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-542
JournalAviation Space and Environmental Medicine
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • survival psychology
  • cognitive paralysis
  • working memory


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