Monday, 22 February 2016

How a sweaty t-shirt gives clues about human disgust reactions

How a sweaty t-shirt gives clues about human disgust reactions: Psychologists at the University of Sussex have found that a person’s core disgust response is reduced if the source is within their own social group.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Witnessing deadly Hajj crush led to a degree at Sussex

Witnessing deadly Hajj crush led to a degree at Sussex: “I cannot describe the horror of walking amongst the bodies of 346 dead pilgrims, with others injured and traumatized.”

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Impact: From riots to crowd safety - The Psychologist

Impact: From riots to crowd safety - The Psychologist

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Monday, 29 June 2015

The psychology of bank runs

The announcement today that Greek banks will be closed at least until the referendum on Sunday was apparently prompted by the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) to end the financial support that has allowed the banks to function despite people withdrawing their money for months. The behaviour of the public in withdrawing their money has been described as a ‘bank run’ and, in some places, a mass panic. Based on our research and the wider literature on so-called ‘panics’ in crowds, three simple points can be made about the current Greek bank run.

1. It is misleading to describe the behaviour of people withdrawing their money as ‘mass panic’. In ordinary conversation, the term ‘panic’ is used to talk about, and to do, different things (such as blaming, excusing and so on); but one consistent association is that of the abandonment of social rules through undue haste. Yet the crowds depicted queuing at Greek ATMs, like those observed by sociologists studying bank runs, have been cooperative and orderly. Another association of the term ‘panic’ is extreme or sudden emotion. But, as is often the case in bank runs, the people queuing were also relatively calm. This suggests that emotion is not the defining issue in bank runs at all.

2. Participating in a bank run, particularly when it’s already begun, is often a reasonable course of action for the individuals concerned. Another implication of the term ‘panic’ is that such behaviour is self-defeating and irrational. In his study of the Home State Savings Bank Run in Cincinnati in 1985, Johnson pointed out that, when everybody else is taking their money out, the real risk is not to oneself but rather being last in the queue and the money runs out. All the individual withdrawals may lead to the collapse of the bank, and so have damaging consequences for the wider collective (including those who have yet to take their money out); yet appeals for people to be patient or to trust the bank would only be heeded where they perceive others (including those other banks and businesses withdrawing funds) to be patient and trusting.

3. Reassurances and other communicative acts may inadvertently create and sustain a bank run. In their study of the 2007 Northern Rock bank run, Gillespie and Cornish note that when the Bank of England gave Northern Rock an emergency loan, this was widely seen as a signal of the bank’s imminent demise. The BBC reported that ‘Treasury Select Committee chairman John McFall urged Northern Rock customers not to panic’. Yet, in a situation where trust was diminishing, such reassurances are likely to have backfire effects – which was precisely the case for Northern Rock.

A last point is that one reason that bank runs are described as panics is because the run is apparently based on a false belief or rumour. From the outside, and with access to all the relevant information, the commentator might be able to judge that the rumours were false – for example that the bank is not really in trouble (yet) and that there is no need (yet) to withdraw funds. But in the current context, when bankers and their allies in government have repeatedly lied and have constructed complex arrangements for their own profits around a series of financial fictions, who’s to say that the rumour among the public about the trustworthiness of the bank is an unreasonable belief? Who should people trust?

Arabic version:

Greek version:

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Letter from Santiago: Disaster central

I am currently in Santiago, Chile, meeting with colleagues at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to discuss disaster research. Chile is an obvious place for such research, since it regularly suffers from a variety of natural disasters. In the last year there have been two volcano eruptions, an earthquake, flooding and landslides as well as a massive fire at Valparaíso which destroyed over two thousand homes.

I’ve been hearing about research which is investigating why it is that, in disasters, as well as many useful contributions people also donate a lot of things that survivors do not need. Some examples mentioned included a belt buckle, make-up, flags, and a wedding dress. Sorting through the donations to identify the useful contributions can be a lot of work for someone, and my colleagues’ research aims to help understand how to make the best of the inevitable and welcome desire to help that is associated with emergencies and disasters so it can contribute to more effective disaster recovery.

While this Chilean research focuses on help given by people outside the disaster, my own work has focusesd on the behaviour of survivors themselves. Here are the key points, in a blogpost-sized summary.

One of the features of crowd behaviour in mass emergencies that warranted explanation was the way that people who were strangers only minutes before could display forms of social support and mutual aid normally associated with groups where there was a history of solidarity - as took place for example among survivors of the July 7th 2005 London bombings. People took risks to help others. They delayed their exit to tie tourniquets. They went out of their way to share bottles of water and provide a word of comfort.

While not universal, the finding of solidarity among survivors of emergencies is relatively common. Existing psychological explanations for social behaviour in disasters - pre-existing social networks (or so-called ‘social capital’) or family ties - did not apply in many cases. Our analysis suggested that the shift in behaviour towards solidarity was due to a psychological shift based on the changing social context. An emergency or disaster can create a sense of common fate - a situation where people were now grouped together instead of positioned as individuals. In Gestalt terms, the ‘figure and ground’ shifts from ‘me in relation to other individuals’ to ‘us in relation to the emergency/threat’. In such events, survivors often describe a new sense of ‘we-ness’, which in our language is a shared social identity. Sharing a social identity means that the boundaries of concern become more inclusive. People give support to others because the ‘others’ are now ‘us’.

This analysis offers an alternative to previously-dominant understandings of crowd behaviour in emergencies as irrational ‘mass panic’. Instead, it promotes the idea of spontaneous self-organization in crowds of survivors, who act as the ‘fourth emergency service’ in the absence of professional responders – as has been seen in events as diverse as the World Trade Centre evacuation, the Hillsborough disaster and Hurricane Katrina . Our current research, on solidarity at the 2010 Chile earthquake and on the informal orderliness that maintained crowd safety at an outdoor music event that was almost a disaster, add to this analysis some details of the underlying process. They each show that shared social identity leads not only to the motivation to help strangers in emergencies but also to expectations that others (strangers) will be supportive of group members. These expectations of support in turn are the basis of collective efficacy and coordinated action for the group.

Our account also has some implications for professional emergency responders. If through shared social identity people in crowds have the psychological capacity to support each other and thereby contribute to their own coping and survival, then approaches which treat crowds as ‘problems to be managed’ and attempts to coerce, control the crowd or withhold information are worse than useless. As we have argued, such exclusive ‘command and control’ approaches risk creating anxiety and disempowerment. Instead, professional responders and those working in crowd safety need to build upon the crowd’s capacities by giving the crowd the information people need to act and organize effectively.

In suggesting that crowd psychology is the basis of collective resilience, this account also offers a potent critique of individualism. While the dominant discourse presents individualism as the highest form of rationality, our research turns this around by showing that very often it is through understanding oneself as part of the crowd that safety is enhanced. Examples of doors being blocked in emergency evacuations suggest that it is acting as an individual in a collective setting risks turning an emergency into a disaster.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Overcrowding at Finsbury Park railway station

The Christmas holidays are a time when many people travel to visit relatives, and so travel hubs can expect to be busy. I was one of those attempting to traverse the country today and became caught up in the overcrowding at Finsbury Park station, London.
Engineering works that had been due to finish on Friday 26th (Boxing Day) overran, leading to the decision taken late yesterday to close King’s Cross station for the whole of 27th December. While Network Rail and others advised travellers to delay their journeys till Sunday or Monday, the other advice was that people travelling into or out of London could use Finsbury Park station instead to catch or leave their East Coast trains to/from the North.
The tube journey to that north London station wasn’t busy. But on arriving at Finsbury Park the crowd was so large that people simply could not get in or out. Hundreds more were queuing outside.
Picture courtesy @samhansford
Inside, hundreds more were stuck between the tube line and the platforms, in an underground tunnel, unable to get onto the platforms which were already full. This large crowd remained in this position, toe-to-toe and shoulder-to-shoulder, quite literally, for about an hour when I was there (around 11am) and maybe some time before that too.
Picture courtesy ‪@jimewing
People alighting from trains coming from the North into Finsbury Park had to struggle through the same tunnel through an extremely dense crowd of people with suitcases, rucksacks and crying babies, including some travellers who we felt particularly sorry for, who had only just arrived in the country.
Eventually, the station was closed so that no more people could enter the crowd, room was made on the platform, and we shuffled forward onto the platform to await a train.
The overcrowding was described as ‘dangerous’, and indeed it was widely stated before the event and in one of the Tannoy announcements that a small station like Finsbury Park simply didn't have anywhere near the capacity to cope with the large number of people who would normally use King’s Cross, one of the largest and busiest stations in the country. It was also fortunate that Arsenal were not playing at home today!
With colleagues, I have looked at the behaviour and experiences of people at a number of large and crowded events. These include Hani Alnabulsi’s work on the 2012 Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where densities averaged 5 people per square metre and at times went as high as 8 people per square metre.
There was also our ESRC-funded study of survivors’ accounts at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where over 90 people were killed in a crowd crush, and our Leverhulme-funded project on experiences at the Fatboy Slim Beach party in 2002where 250,000 people crowded onto Brighton beach. The beach was 50,605 m2 in size, giving only 0.2 m2 of space per person in this crowd.
In each of these events, the experience of extreme density ranged from annoying, stressful and difficult to frightening and extremely dangerous. Another common feature is that there is often spontaneous self-organization amongst strangers in the crowd. At Hillsborough, people cooperated to pull others from the most dense areas of the crowd. At the Brighton beach party, people made small circles round women so they could have privacy to urinate (since public toilets were massively overwhelmed).
One of the obvious differences between the crowd at an event such as the  Hajj from that at Hillsborough or the Brighton beach party is that whereas the former is planned, expected and routinized, the latter are unexpected and unplanned. This has consequences for how those involved in these events feel about those they think are responsible for managing the event (for example in the Hajj crowd, even as levels of density increased, there was no falling off in levels of satisfaction with the competence of management).
All of these features and others were evident at Finsbury Park today.
First, while many of us expected it to be busy, we were not prepared for such levels of density. It was uncomfortable, annoying, stressful and could have been quite scary for those who are claustrophobic. It was certainly alarming. Anyone could see that it was dangerous, as the crowd was so packed that any movement was very difficult. Any sudden push could have caused some people to be squashed against a wall. As Sartre put it in another context, other people were hell.
Second, despite the irritation and some inconsiderate pushing, people were largely polite and patient. When people tried to get through, they asked others to excuse them and they tried to be careful. Space was made for those exiting and for a mother with a pushchair. People gave each other directions. When someone, just arriving, tried to use the exit route to apparently push in front of this giant crowd-queue, he was rebuked and then  quietly accepted his place at the back. And people talked to the strangers around them, oscillating between being atomized individuals in a physical crowd to social individuals sharing a common experience. They cheered when there was announcement that we would be moving soon. There was a kind of order.
Third, there were complaints about the lack of official organisation and the failure to communicate (What was happening on the platform? Was there a train due in soon?). The role of those with an overview of the event was all the more crucial given the inherently poor back-to-front communication there was in this and all crowds. Part of the danger of crushing was a function of the fact that those coming into the crowd could not see the front and had no idea how dense it was and whether or not other people could move. This is how crowd tragedies occur. Eventually at Finsbury Park, a system was implemented whereby those coming off the trains were allowed to move off the platform and through a narrow channel in the tunnel before those waiting in the tunnel were allowed to move forward onto the platform. The station was then closed, since it was well over capacity (was anyone actually counting?) And eventually the fact of this system was communicated to the waiting crowd.
Communication in a potentially dangerous overcrowded situation is important for at least two reasons, then. First, to be told how long the queuing is expected to last, the reason for the wait and so on reduces some of the stress, anxiety and annoyance that accompanies such experiences. Second, it gives people the information they need to make decisions about moving forward, staying still or trying to leave. If people knew how many others were in front of them, how much space there was on the platform, how long they would be waiting – information which only those managing the station could know – this can facilitate the tendencies to self-organization and order described above.