delanceyplace.com 11/12/10 - the myth of mass panic
"The image of the panicked deeply ingrained in the popular imagination. Hardly any self-respecting Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without one scene of people running wildly in all directions and screaming hysterically. Television newscasters perpetuate this stereotype with reports that show shoppers competing for items in what is described as 'panic buying' and traders gesticulating frantically as 'panic' sweeps through the stock market.
"The idea of mass panic shapes how we plan for, and respond to, emergency events. In Pennsylvania, for example, the very term is inscribed in safety regulations known as the state's Fire and Panic Code. Many public officials assume that ordinary people will become highly emotional in an emergency, especially in a crowded situation and that providing information about the true nature of the danger is likely to make individuals panic even more. Emergency management plans and policies often intentionally conceal information: for ex- ample, event marshals may be instructed to inform one another of a fire using code words, to prevent people from overhearing the news - and overreacting.
"Mathematicians and engineers who model 'crowd dynamics' often rely on similar assumptions describing behaviors such as 'herding,' 'flocking' and, of course, 'panic.' As the late Jonathan Sime (an environmental psychologist formerly at the University of Surrey in England) pointed out, efforts to 'design out disaster' have typically treated people as unthinking or instinctive rather than as rational, social beings. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on the width of doorways than on communication technologies that might help people make informed decisions about their own safety.
"These ideas about crowd behavior permeate the academic world, too. For many years influential psychology textbooks have illustrated mass panic by citing supposed examples such as the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in Chicago in which some 600 people perished and the Cocoanut Grove Theater fire of 1942 in Boston in which 492 people died. In the textbook explanations, theatergoers burned to death as a result of their foolish overreaction to danger. But Jerome M. Chertkoff and Russell H. Kushigian of Indiana University, the first social psychologists to analyze the Cocoanut Grove fire in depth, found that the nightclub managers had jeopardized public safety in ways that are shocking today. In a 1999 book on the psychology of emergency egress and ingress, Chertkoff and Kushigian concluded that physical obstructions, not mass panic, were responsible for the loss of life in the infamous fire.
"A more recent example tells a similar story. Kathleen Tierney and her co-workers at the University of Colorado at Boulder investigated accusations of panicking, criminality, brutality and mayhem in the aftermath of Hurricane Ka- trina. They concluded that these tales were 'disaster myths.' What was branded as 'looting' was actually collective survival behavior: people took food for their families and neighbors when store payment systems were not working and rescue services were nowhere in sight. In fact, the population showed a surprising ability to self-organize in the absence of authorities, according to Tierney and her colleagues.
"Such work builds on earlier research by two innovative sociologists in the 1950s. Enrico Quarantelli - who founded the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University in 1985 and later moved with it to the University of Delaware - examined many instances of emergency evacuations and concluded that people often flee from dangerous events such as fires and bombings, because usually that is the sensible thing to do. A fleeing crowd is not necessarily a panicked, irrational crowd.
"The second pioneering sociologist, Charles Fritz, was influenced by his ex- periences as a soldier in the U.K. during the World War II bombings known as the Blitz. 'The Blitz spirit' has become a cliché for communities pulling together in times of adversity. In the 1950s, as a researcher at the University of Chicago, Fritz made a comprehensive inventory of 144 peacetime disaster studies that confirmed the truth of the cliché. He concluded that rather than descending into disorder and a helpless state, human beings in disasters come together and give one another strength. Our research suggests that if there is such a thing as panic, it probably better describes the fear and helplessness of lone individuals than the responses of a crowd in the midst of an emergency."
Author: John Drury and Stephen D. Reicher
Title: "Crowd Control"
Publisher: Scientific America Mind
Date: November/December 2010