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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Jul-11


Friday 08-July-11

Crisis reactions

If there was an emergency in a crowded street, what would happen? If we are to believe Hollywood, then chaos will ensue, with people screaming and fleeing as they take an 'every person for him/her self' attitude. The assumption is that threat creates fear which leads to selfish self-preservation. It's an animalistic view that frames the veneer of civilisation as being very thin, and that we are always one step away from reverting to the jungle. There is also an assumption of easy infection, that fear in a crowd spreads like wildfire.

Whilst there is truth in this, there is also hope in that emergencies create heroes as well as panic, and that many more of us will stop to help one another than a simple self-preservation model might suggest. In a recent study by John Drury and colleagues, 21 survivors of mass emergencies were asked about feelings of unity and how much helping and orderliness they saw. Nine said it was everyone for themselves, but 12 described feelings of unity as people sought to help one another and were orderly in escaping.

What was not clear in this research was why. Why do people as a group sometimes panic and sometimes stop and help one another. My guess is that it's something like a Mexican wave. One person does it, a few around catch on, then the mood catches and everyone joins in. There's also going to be something about how personally threatening the situation is. If a high threat continues, then more people will stay in self-preservation mode.

To make this work, someone has to go first. Leadership in a crisis is important, as people who are uncertain will look to others for guidance. All it takes is one person to remind us that we are decent people and soon others will be joining in.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48 (3), 487-506

Your comments

"When I was nobbut a lad, fruit was a luxury. I'd get an orange in my Christmas stocking and be glad of it."

- You were lucky ...

-- Graham J.

Dave replies:
Aye, we wuz the posh ones. We had stockings.

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