Wednesday, 22 July 2015
Monday, 29 June 2015
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?
Wednesday, 20 May 2015
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
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 2002, where 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.
Thursday, 18 December 2014
In the current context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there are some similarities between how academics react to the pressures of the REF and how crowds respond to novel, pressurised situations.
I find it interesting that, unlike other ‘human sciences’, psychology is somewhat fragmented. As an example, biological psychology and social psychology are so different in their subject matter, assumptions and methods that they hardly appear to be part of the same discipline. And social psychology itself is often characterized by differences and deep disagreements over its proper subject matter (cognition? talk?) and appropriate theoretical framework (social identity? social cognition?).
These within-discipline differences become more or less salient according to context. For example, in the departments I have studied and worked in, I have noticed that the arguments about what psychology is and should be are often most evident – most argued over – when the different groups are together in the same place to hear a guest speaker identifiable with one branch or another. In other settings – for example when the same people in the same department come together in a departmental meeting to discuss their teaching and administration – these differences of perspective on the nature of psychology are often less evident, and we think and act as a single group.
In the current context of the REF, psychology departments are being pulled in both directions – towards fragmentation and towards unity – and the process resembles in some ways the changes in group identity and alliance – the intergroup dynamics – I have observed elsewhere.
The REF context and intergroup dynamics
One of the things to understand about the REF is that, in common with other drives towards measurement in the Higher Education sector, it encourages a greater emphasis than in the past on ‘outputs’. When I got my first research funding, some years ago, the purpose of the work I was to undertake, I imagined, was to produce findings that would increase knowledge and develop theory. That is a traditional view of the nature of academic research. But it is not the way that we are encouraged to think about our research activity now.
Irrespective of actual scientific contribution, research grants now need to produce outputs. What are outputs? They are measurable and hence publicly verifiable products of the research. The problem is how we define a valuable output. Not all products of research fit the bill, if we use metrics such as journal impact factors. Journal articles count as outputs but not all journal articles are equally valued. Even among all those journals that are peer reviewed in the same subject, such as psychology, some have better impact factors than others. An impact factor is a calculation of the journal’s citation rate, but there are different reasons why one journal has a higher average citation rate than another journal. So, this leaves psychology in a situation whereby some journals are ranked better than others, if we are to use journal impact factors.
Journal impact factors are divisive
It is well known that social psychology journals have lower impact factors than psychiatry and neuroscience journals. It is also well known that this difference is partly a function of different publishing schedules for different (sub-)disciplines, and the size of the readership or access to the journal, rather than a reflection of the scientific worth of different kinds of research. The current REF guidelines tell us that journal impact factors will not be used to evaluate outputs, but there is a lot of doubt about this pledge. The idea that value depends on a journal’s impact factor is persistent.
One thing the emphasis on impact factors has meant in my own university (and I know we are not unusual, as I have heard the same thing from others) is that social psychologists are encouraged to publish in general psychology journals or those from other branches of psychology. This may actually be a good thing. However, any implication that social psychology journals are inferior, and that publications in these journals are less worthy, does not seem such a good idea – either for the morale of researchers or for the development of knowledge.
The second consequence of this unevenness in the measured value of journals is not simply in terms of presentation but in terms of content. One psychology department I know of was advised that they shouldn’t bother with a social psychology group at all, but instead should invest in more fMRI-based researchers. This puts some branches of psychology at risk. The other problem with this sort of approach is, taken to its logical conclusion, leaves psychology not looking too good relative to other sciences. Given the relevance, for receiving government funding, of being a STEM discipline, arbitrary rankings can therefore have serious consequences for the future of psychology as a field.
Pressure from the REF can be a unifying factor
However, in this topsy-turvy world, where measurement is to some extent driving the phenomenon it is meant to measure, there is also a sense in which psychologists from the different areas of the discipline are all in the same boat. At a departmental level, there is a shared cynicism about the REF, about all the extra work involved, and about the pressure on us all to maximize our outputs to meet the 2014 deadline. It is something we complain about together and commiserate collectively in the tea-room. In this context, therefore, the social world is clearly organized not in terms of different groups of psychologists with different ideas about the nature of psychology, but in terms of psychology departments and the government, with senior management mediating between the two.
This is not to say that there are not salient REF-related differences within departments, for someone in the department has to make sure that everyone else is ‘REF-ready’, and in effect to represent the REF to the rest of us and the rest of us to the REF. On occasions, when I have criticised the REF (and the RAE before it), I have been reminded by colleagues that to simply ignore it would be suicidal for a department because of the funding that is bound up with it, and that we must therefore ‘play the game’. To maintain within-group morale, in the pressurised climate of the REF, psychologists should reassure their colleagues that they think their work is valued - over and above their REF rating. One of the findings that has come out of my research on people in stressful situations (mass emergencies) is that the group is a key source of survival and recovery through the social support it offers its members.
(A version of this article was originally published in the BPS Wessex Psychologist Bulletin, No. 8, Spring 2013.)
Friday, 10 October 2014
When there is an emergency in the news, I am often asked by journalists to comment on how people behave in such circumstances. The main question is usually ‘why do people panic?’ A follow up question is typically along the lines of what governments can do to stop people panicking. I was asked this about the Ebola crisis only today.
My interest in these kinds of questions developed from an ESRC-funded project in which I and colleagues developed a social identity explanation of crowd behaviour in emergencies. According to this explanation, under certain conditions, an emergency can create a shared social identity amongst survivors which is the basis of inclusive solidarity behaviours amongst them. In line with previous work in sociology and psychology, the research from this project questioned the usefulness of ‘panic’ as a description of mass emergency behaviour, both empirically and conceptually.
Empirically, instances of crowd solidarity in emergencies were too common for the crowd to be an inherent conduit of unreasonable fears and personally selfish behaviours, as the concept of ‘mass panic’ would imply. Where escape behaviour is disorderly and individualistic, it is not the crowd as such that is the psychological problem but the fact that people are acting as individuals when they are in a crowd.
Conceptually, even for those crowds where sudden fear spreads or where escape behaviours are frantic, what is the criteria for labelling such responses as ‘panic’? Reasonableness is often in the eye of the beholder – especially in emergencies where it is not clear to those involved just exactly how much danger they are in. Research on fires shows that its safer to ‘over-react’ than ‘under-react’.
Yet the same research that questioned the usefulness of crowd ‘panic’ as a thing also pointed to the importance of ‘panic’ as a representation. ‘Panic’ exists as a discourse or interpretative repertoire in popular culture and in organizations’ texts, and can be mobilized to achieve various goals. This was the basis of a second programme of research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
The Leverhulme research found that ‘panic’ was widespread as a representation, and that it could operate as the warrant for emergency measures such as limiting public information and maintaining expert control (‘the public can't be trusted – they will panic’). As well as being used by those preparing for emergencies, ‘panic’ is used by those caught up in such events. Survivors of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster used the term ‘panic’ to excuse their own ‘uncharacteristic’ behaviour and to criticize the police approach during the event.
What was clear here and in other places was the considerable usefulness of the term ‘panic’ as a way of explaining ‘wrong’ behaviour and hence of making a criticism.
The usefulness of the discourse of ‘panic’ as a device in criticism is also evident in two concepts in sociology: moral panic and elite panic. Stanley Cohen’s concept of moral panic characterized a societal response of hostility and/or concern towards a group or social object that becomes seen as a moral threat. In his example of the moral panic over mods and rockers in the 1960s, Cohen was not simply describing this concern but arguing that it was overstated, unreasonable and exaggerated: it was a panic. Yet the process behind this panic was not one of collective pathology; the panic didn't arise because of collectivity but rather because of particular sets of interests, such as the media and other ‘elites’, which actively constructed the threat to channel existing public concerns.
The concept of elite panic, coined by Lee Clarke, was useful as a way of turning round the ‘crowd panic’ debate. He argued that it is not the public that panics in emergencies but the government when they start to see the grassroots self-organization in affected communities which effectively challenge the legitimacy and necessity of government control.
Elite panic is perhaps a concept that comes to mind when considering the Ebola crisis. The UK Government may not be alarmed by public self-organization right now, but it certainly appears to many to be acting in an ill-judged and hasty manner. Yesterday morning, the Government said that no screening measures were necessary at UK airports, in line with advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). But, by the afternoon, it was announced that people arriving in the UK from areas hit by Ebola would face ‘enhanced screening’ for the virus. Was this some kind of elite overreaction? The medical advice from WHO and others had not changed; and the chairman of the government's own Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, Professor George Griffin, was quoted as saying that the screening measures to be used - temperature tests - were ‘a very ineffectual tool’.
Comparing this to another recent ‘crisis’, there does seem to be considerable scope for criticism using the discourse of ‘panic’. In March 2012, when there was a threat of a fuel tanker driver strike and the possibility of petrol shortages, the prime minister David Cameron went on television especially in order to make an official announcement that there was no crisis. At the same time, the Cabinet Secretary Frances Maude advised drivers to stock up on petrol. This made strategic sense for a Conservative government which had an interest in apportioning blame to potential strikers - for that was one effect of Cameron and Maude’s ‘communications’. But what was rational for the Government was certainly ill-judged from the point of view of ‘society as a whole’, and this was the basis of much of the criticism. The very fact of making such a high profile official announcement was to communicate that there was something to be very concerned about, no matter what the content of Cameron’s speech. And in saying ‘don’t worry, but do prepare’, Maude in effect communicated to the public that there was indeed cause for worry - and thereby hastened queues at petrol stations based on these reasonable fears.
Likewise with Ebola. Critics have argued that the Government’s apparently hastily-introduced screening measure is not a serious attempt to stop the spread of the disease, but something implemented to look at though the Government is ‘doing something’: it is politically motivated. But while the measures may make political sense from the perspective of the Conservative government, which might not be concerned that they are actually ineffective, we can also criticise them for risking creating unnecessary public fear of a threat where there wasn’t one previously.
For these reasons, the term ‘panic’ can be useful as form of criticism of actions by Governments that have unintended damaging effects on others. And the stock answer to the journalists’ questions are these:
Question: ‘Why do people panic?’
Answer: People’s fears in crises may be reasonable given what they know of the threat, which might be mediated through their perceptions of Government preventative measures.
Question: ‘What can governments and others can do to stop people panicking?’
Answer: When there is little evidence of widespread public fears, high profile acts and announcements by Government to prevent a ‘crisis’ can produce that crisis – so avoid them.