Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Disaster Psychology: Part 1 – The Myths of Panic

One of our recent blog posts discussed the common mistake that people make when they describe human behavior as “stupid” or something similar after someone makes a mistake of some sort. This line of thinking doesn’t only apply to normal operations, but also applies to human behavior in emergency and disaster scenarios. One of the enduring beliefs people have regarding people’s behavior in these types of situations can be summed up with the word panic.

What is Panic?

One of the problems with the concept of panic is that the word doesn’t have a very good definition. Many times people mean “fear” when they talk about panic. So, for example, if you say that everyone was panicking, that typically means that everyone was very afraid and was reacting to that fear.

Panic is also used to describe what people believe is extreme irrational, anti-social behavior that they see following an emergency or disaster. So, for example, irrational running away (known as flight behavior), disregard for others, and even looting or other criminal behaviors get described as “panic” by some.

This latter definition of panic is the one we want to focus on in this blog, because if this is true it has significant implications. The first definition is very meaningful or surprising (saying that people get really scared in disasters isn’t telling us anything we couldn’t have guessed at). However, if people do typically respond in emergencies and disasters in irrational and anti-social ways that means that people become part of the problem following a disaster and effective planning would require protecting people from themselves. For example, we would see withholding information from the public until they “need to know,” emergency planning would be based on public response agencies saving the day for the helpless citizens, and a need for significant command and control, including law enforcement, to stop anti-social behaviors.

Do People Panic?

Well, research in emergency and disaster scenarios and people’s behaviors shows that panic does happen, but nearly as often as people think. Panic, again, defined as irrational and anti-social behavior, is the exception, but not the rule. Research shows that panic is typically an individual behavior, not a group behavior, and that individuals are likely to panic when three conditions exist:
  • There is a perception of an immediate threat,
  • The belief that escape is possible, but that the person’s ability to escape is diminishing, and
  • The belief that others nearby are unable to help them and the individual does not have the resources to handle the situation themselves.

A couple notes on the above conditions. First, note that it is based not on reality but the individual’s perception of reality. So, one person may perceive an immediate threat in a situation where no real threat exists. But whether the threat exists or not, it’s the perception of the threat that matters.

Second, note that the person must perceive that there is potential to escape the situation. In situations where escape is impossible it is rare to see panic behaviors, such as in a cave in or a submarine disaster.

However, we must stress that panic is the exception, not the rule. To illustrate this, consider the following case studies:
  • At the Beverley Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 the National Fire Protection Association investigation identified that there was no evidence of panic. Rather, the majority of the deaths occurred in a room where rather than evacuating a comedian continued to his act while the building was on fire.
  • On September 11th, 70% of all survivors in the World Trade Center reported that they spoke to someone before evacuating the building, taking an average of 6 minutes before deciding to leave the World Trade Center.
  • During Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast where many reported wide spread panic, 85% of all listeners reported knowing it was a radio broadcast, not a real alien invasion.

Or, consider the following quote by a fire department official following the Oklahoma City Bombing:
Absolute, unrestrained panic was rampant in the building during the first hour to hour and half of the incident. The building had so many access points that it was very difficult to keep anyone from entering.
Look at the examples above and consider the picture that it paints. Do we see people acting in their own self-interest, anti-socially? Or do we see people responding in pro-social ways, trying to engage with and help others or hold on to some level of normalcy?


Consider these questions a bit and feel free to leave your comments and questions. We’ll go further into how people behave and how we can better plan for that behavior in next week’s blog.

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