Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies

Myths abound regarding the behaviour of crowds in emergencies. This includes the idea that crowds typically descend into a state of mass panic; that disaster brings out the worst in people as many seize the moment to engage in criminal behaviour; and that most survivors are stunned by catastrophe into a catatonic state of helplessness. Rather worryingly a new paper suggests that many British professionals involved in disaster planning and response endorse some of these myths, with implications for the kind of disaster procedures that they endorse.

John Drury and his colleagues surveyed 115 police personnel from 7 services (half were ranked as constables or sergeants; half were more senior); 46 civilian emergency planners (including coastguards and security managers); and 120 football match stewards. For comparison, they also surveyed 78 students and 89 members of the general public.

Overall, the police endorsed several aspects of the mass panic myth, including the idea that crowds tend to exaggerate the threat; that emotions and instincts overcome rational thought; and that fear and rumours spread like a contagion. In contrast, they believed the authorities and emergency services are immune from these effects. On a more positive note, the police were agnostic regards people using disaster as a cover for civil disorder and they correctly rejected the idea that people become more selfish in emergencies.

The views of the civilian emergency experts and stewards were similar to the police, the main difference being that they more strongly endorsed the idea that people use disaster as a cover for civil disorder. Students and the general public tended to endorse myths around panic and civil disorder even more strongly than the professional groups. The myth that people become helplessness in emergency situations was rejected by all groups (research in North America has found endorsement for this myth, suggesting it may be localised to that culture).

Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.

Reflecting their beliefs, many of the professionals endorsed the idea that disasters require exclusive top-down control by experts, but they rejected the widely adopted policy of restricting the release of information in emergencies. The stewards, who endorsed the civil disorder myth, endorsed coercive crowd control strategies.

Overall, there were positives to emerge from this study – the professional groups endorsed fewer disaster myths than the students and general public, and they recognised many aspects of psychological resilience exhibited by crowds in emergencies. On the other hand, it’s worrying that the professional groups endorse many aspects of disaster myths. “There is a powerful case here for greater dissemination  of academic research findings on crowd behaviour to professional audiences,” the researchers said, “to dispel myths about the ‘mass’.”

As the researchers acknowledged, the investigation is undermined to some extent by the quality of the survey measures used – some beliefs were tapped by just a single question. Also, it’s not clear how much the professionals’ survey answers would match their decisions on the ground in a real emergency.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

John Drury, David Novelli and Clifford Stott (2013). Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12176

–Further reading–
Emergencies inspire crowd cooperation, not panic.

Irrational human decision making during a zombie apocalypse.

Crowd Control – In emergencies, people don’t panic. In fact, they show a remarkable ability to organize themselves and support one another (PDF). 

No need to panic – the psychological assumptions behind proposed powers to deal with emergencies (PDF – scroll to page 118).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.