These Are the 8 Characteristics Shared by People Who Have Survived Disasters

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Surviving a disaster doesn't just come down to fight or flight. Circumventing danger is more complicated than that. However, there may be one way to gauge if you have what it takes to make it out alive, thanks to a 2015 study. Do you possess the eight shared traits of survivors?

I'm A Survivor, I'm Not Gon' Give Up

They say you won't know how you'll respond to a catastrophe until you're faced with one. A study published in PLOS One in July 2015 set out to clear up that mystery. What does it take to survive? The researchers interviewed and surveyed survivors of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster to get closer to what fuels the power to live in these scenarios. More than 1,400 survivors received the questionnaire, which included 40 items, each pertaining to one of three classes of characteristics: personal traits, attitudes, and habits. Drumroll please... here is the list of eight traits that were shared among the survivors of that disaster:

1. Leadership

This represents the attitude or habit of gathering and organizing people. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements (taken from the questionnaire):

  • I take initiative in talking to other people.
  • Sophisticated words that move other people come out of my mouth.

2. Problem-solving

This represents the attitude or habit of strategically tackling problems. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • The more agitated the people around me become, the calmer I somehow become.
  • When I am fretting about what I should do, I compare several alternative actions.

3. Altruism

This represents the personality trait that causes people to care about and help others. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • I like it when other people rely on me and are grateful to me.
  • When someone asks me to do something for them, I cannot refuse.

4. Stubbornness

This represents the personality trait, attitude, or habit of sticking to one's desires or beliefs. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • I say whatever it is I want to say without hesitation.
  • I hate losing.

5. Etiquette

This represents the attitude or habit of conforming to social norms in daily behavior. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • In everyday life, I take care of myself as much as possible.
  • When someone has helped me or been kind to me, I clearly convey my feelings of gratitude.

6. Emotional regulation

This represents the attitude or habit of endeavoring to stay calm in difficult or strained circumstances. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • When something happens, I try to stay calm and not panic.
  • During difficult times, I endeavor not to brood.

7. Self-transcendence

This represents awareness of the meaning of one's life from a spiritual perspective. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • I am aware of the path and teachings I should follow as a person.
  • I am aware of the role I should play in society.

8. Active well-being

This refers to the daily practice of maintaining or improving one's physical, mental, and intellectual status. You may possess this trait if you strongly agree with these statements:

  • In everyday life, I endeavor to find opportunities to acquire new knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • In everyday life, I have habitual practices that are essential for relieving stress or giving me a change of pace.
The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan on April 30, 2011

What Would You Do?

Reports of disasters tend to mostly touch on the big figures — the billions in damage, the dozens of lives lost, the hundreds of injuries — and the details can get lost. But studies like this humanize these very real, human experiences. Identifying and fostering these potentially life-saving traits in yourself could help you in a sudden crisis, and during the aftermath.

But all the preparation in the world can't prepare anyone for the unimaginable. Smithsonian Channel's "Make It Out Alive" series revisits some of the past century's most unthinkable catastrophes to share the firsthand accounts of people who were actually there. Take a cue from real-life survivors, and ask yourself: "What would I have done?"

Stream the Mount St. Helens episode of "Make It Out Alive" here now, and tune in to Smithsonian Channel Sundays at 9 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) for brand-new episodes through November 19. 

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Written By Joanie Faletto November 3, 2017
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