Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Research on psychosocial resilience in first responders

Psychology awarded £50K for research on psychosocial resilience in first responders

Student’s crowd research shows why we love the terraces and hate the Tube

Student’s crowd research shows why we love the terraces and hate the Tube

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Why do ‘stampedes’ happen at crowd events?

On a regular basis, the mass media report tragedies at crowd events intended as positive, uplifting experiences for their participants. Recent examples include the deaths at the Cambodian Water festival  and the Love Parade in Duisberg, Germany. Very often, such reports describe mass casualties at religious pilgrimages – such as the recent tragedy in India.

There is a recognizable pattern to the reporting of these kinds of events. Inevitably, there is a ‘stampede’, which is caused by ‘panic’ in the crowd. These loaded terms form an off-the-shelf framework for not simply describing but also offering a ‘common sense’ explanation of such events.

‘Stampeding’ is the behaviour of herd animals. The word ‘stampede’ therefore conveys something different from the word ‘fleeing’. It implies that the behaviour is primitive, instinctive

‘Panic’ is a psychological state. It implies a rashness or irrationality in response to (perceived) danger, and hence a failure to consider or be constrained by one’s critical judgement or the usual social rules.

The clear implication in describing these fatal crushes as ‘stampedes’ brought on by ‘panic’ is that people are more likely to respond in these ways in crowds than they are alone. They are more credulous, more driven by simple emotions, more excitable, more impulsive, more barbaric. In crowds, apparently, we forget the social obligations that structure our normal interaction. Instead, acting as asocial individuals, we trample each other and even kill ourselves in our attempts to escape perceived danger.

In the accounts of tragedies at religious pilgrimages, there is an implicit or sometimes more explicit linkage of this mass psychology to the exoticism and religious beliefs of the victims. Whether or not it is intended, the news accounts can sometimes be read as explaining such stampedes as partly due to the nature of the particular groups involved: they are presented as especially credulous, excitable, and so on.

By contrast, the notion of the intellectually inferior crowd – whether due to the ‘group mind’ or ‘personality’ – is out of favour with psychologists. And the idea of ‘mass panic’ has been regarded as a ‘myth’ by sociologists for over 50 years.

Therefore, when crowd events end in tragedy, when the news reports a ‘stampede’ due to ‘panic’ in the crowd, I am often asked whether the social scientists haven’t got it wrong after all. Is there in fact something about events such as religious pilgrimages that marks them out as exceptions, i.e., as the types of events where ‘mass panic’ is more likely to occur? If not, how can we explain tragedy on such a scale?

One of the problems in giving a categorical answer to such questions is that the journalists’ accounts are often all we have to go on. Events are often described sketchily, the same source is often used across ‘different’ news accounts, and details and witnesses are not as extensive as we would like. The images of people walking over each other, falling off bridges and so on say little about the context of the single episode or what was going on in the mind of the person being depicted.

But usually even the most limited and cliché-ridden accounts contain snippets that problematize and undermine the ‘mass panic’ explanation.

The death toll in the event was about 1000, with another 465 individuals injured. At first sight, news reports suggest that this event fits the pattern for ‘mass panic’:

1. sudden (exaggerated?) fear of a suicide bomber, spreading (like 'contagion') through the crowd.
2. limited exit due to the large numbers and lack of space.

These are indeed the classic conditions for ‘mass panic’ to occur.

Some of the behaviours cited also chime with the ‘panic’ explanation:

1. the vulnerable (elderly, women etc.) being crushed,
2. people all pushing each other,
3. apparently desperate suicidal-sounding acts of escape (jumping off the bridge), and
4. the usual reference to a 'stampede' (‘directionless’, instinctual fleeing)

Yet there are a number of other features in these same news accounts which muddy this simple picture:

1. The BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy is quoted as saying that, because of ongoing radical Sunni attacks on big Shia gatherings, it was 'not unreasonable' for the worshippers to be 'nervous'. This undermines a little the notion of the pilgrims' fear of a suicide bomber being irrational or exaggerated.
2. There were many attempts to help. In fact, someone is described in a couple of media sources as dying in his attempts to rescue people from the river. This turns around the process in the ‘panic’ account where deaths occurs because of ‘self-preservation’.
3. Some said that they were physically unable to help others because of the crush: "They were crying, shouting out 'please rescue me', but there was no way to help them," said Hadi Shakir, 25, a street trader. (Guardian).
4. Some people said they dived into the river to save themselves (by swimming) ; others fell in due to the crush (rather than dived).
5. In the aftermath, there were statements blaming the authorities for the lack of guidance given to the pilgrims in relation to the levels of density. Put differently, the crush itself might be understood as something which is much more an issue of crowd management than crowd psychology.

It can be argued that what happens to people on becoming part of a large crowd is not loss of control but loss of view. Within a large, dense crowd, one often cannot see how much congestion there is at the head of the crowd, whether people up ahead have stopped, or whether one is walking into a blind alley. The authorities and those overseeing the event have this kind of overview, however - and with it the responsibility to communicate with and marshal the crowd appropriately. From the little information that was put out regarding the official report into the Baghdad event, it seems possible to conclude that the tragedy was preventable had it been managed differently.

This is not to deny that some isolated individuals in the Baghdad crowd may have panicked, or that some may have acted selfishly, or that many were frightened. Nor is it to deny that in some crowd events people display more individualism (personal selfishness) than in others, and that this can contribute to a tragic outcome. To know whether a physical crowd event is also a psychological crowd event, we have to know the extent to which behaviours are socially shared and socially sanctioned. Not just any thought or emotion spreads through a crowd.

Nor is this to deny the importance of the ‘physics’ of crowd events, both as a dynamic force and as a constraint. Sometimes sheer physical pressure pulls people along, and what may appear as intentional or motivated is not. And sometimes people want to coordinate and to help others, but they are physically prevented.

We gain little and lose a lot by use of the terms ‘mass panic’ and ‘stampede’ to describe mass fleeing behaviour. They obscure more than they reveal about collective psychology in stressful events. It is not a coincidence that they are regularly wheeled out as explanations for tragedies by those who might be blamed for the events – the negligent event organizers and safety managers. To locate the cause of the tragedy in the inherent foolishness and selfishness of the crowd is to absolve oneself of responsibility.

A long-term aim in our research group is to look at how extremely large mass events such as religious pilgrimages go right and how they go wrong. Methodologically this means taking seriously the accounts of pilgrims themselves, rather than studying just their observable behaviour and trying to infer from that their perceptions, beliefs and emotions. It also means looking at how those managing the crowd act and think. What are their beliefs about crowd psychology, for example. How do these impact upon their management practices and, in turn, on the experience of those they manage?


Drury. J., & Reicher, S. (2010). Crowd control. Scientific American Mind, November/December 2010, 58-65.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity amongst emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology,  48, 487-506. DOI:10.1348/014466608X357893

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The psychology and politics of ‘going native’: PC Mark Kennedy the protest infiltrator

In the recent coverage of the collapse of a legal case against six environmental protesters, the term ‘going native’ was used by the defence solicitor, Mike Schwartz. (See ) The case collapsed because the key prosecution witness, a police officer who had been working undercover for several years in the environmental direct activist movement, had apparently 'changed sides' by offering to give evidence in support of the defence.

The term ‘going native’ has its origins in early (racist) anthropology. In the social sciences, it refers to the researcher uncritically adopting the concepts and categories of those being studied, rather than retaining the aloof perspective of insider-yet-outsider that is the mark of the professional ethnographer. An example often cited in sociology textbooks is Paul Willis’s (1977) classic study of working class school students’ culture of underachievement. Willis was criticized by some for his adoption of the worldview, and indeed the language, of the boys he was studying.

In relation to ‘collective behaviour’ – crowd phenomena, protest events, social movements and mass campaigns – the notion of ‘going native’ raises issues about psychological process as well as questions of method.

The psychology of transformation in the collective

In the 1995 feature film ‘I.D.’ a police officer sent undercover to infiltrate football hooligan gangs ‘turns into one of the thugs he was sent to destroy’. The excitement of violence proves irresistible, and his identity as a police officer eventually becomes lost. This psychological transformation is characterized as essentially emotional, primordial or instinctual and therefore unreflexive on the part of the central character.

By contrast, in some of the statements by fellow activists and commentators on the motives of the police infiltrator PC Mark Kennedy, there is the implication that his supposed transformation involved as much cognition as emotion. (See ) There is the suggestion that he felt guilty for betraying people he had come to befriend. But there is also the suggestion that he came to believe in the necessity of the environmental movement.

I was reminded on hearing this story of an episode in my ethnographic research study of the No M11 campaign, part of the UK anti-roads movement in the early 1990s (See ). Here too I was studying a type of psychological change that occurred in people involved in an environmental direct action campaign. Wanstead residents objected to their local green being dug up for the construction of a trunk road. They changed on a number of levels. They came to see themselves as in the ‘same group’ as the ‘activists’ who had come to the area for the protest - and indeed in the same group as activists across the country and around the world. They therefore came to see themselves as different from their local neighbours who stood passively by and watched the loss of green space. They also adopted a much more critical view of the police force: when previously the police had been seen as neutral or a protector of their individual rights, now they were seen as agents of unpopular government policy and hence ‘political’.

Eviction of George Green, Wanstead, December 1993

The ‘activists’ I spoke to attributed these changes in the views of ‘locals’ to the force of argument. They had spent long hours together in vigils to protect the green, and in that time had the opportunity to develop their points about the global significance of the ‘local’ road-building scheme and hence the political nature of ‘environmental’ issues.

The role of ‘discussion and debate’ in ‘politicizing’ people in social movements is also stressed by a number of sociologists and social psychologists. There is plenty of evidence that discussion and argument can be persuasive.

But there was something else happening at the time of the transformation of these ‘local’ people into ‘political subjects’. This was their participation in the ‘direct action’ itself. While they may have intended their participation to be different (less ‘direct’) than that of the ‘activists’, it was not seen that way by the police, who acted upon the protesters as a whole – as a crowd, in fact.

Put differently, the (unintended) consequence of the ‘locals’ acting ‘with’ the rest of the crowd was police action which served to impose a common experience (of ‘illegitimate attack’) on all, such that the distinction between ‘activist’ and ‘local’ could no longer be easily sustained. In a context when one is treated as ‘oppositional’ by the police, arguments about the ‘political’ nature of road-building will seem more plausible, and those making them more persuasive. Such people come to be seen as ‘one of us’ rather than ‘one of them’, and we might listen to more carefully.

If indeed the Met police ‘spy’ did change his views - and this is something he is reported as denying - we can only speculate about the exact processes behind such a change.

However we can note, first, that environmental direct activists have good arguments – global warming, vested interests, the nature of social change, and so on. But but they always have had good arguments, and these aren’t usually enough to change the minds of serving police officers, security guards or others paid to oppose their actions!

Second there is the accusation that the infiltrator was more than a spy, that he took an active role in the campaigns he was involved in. His actions were not ‘passive’, it is claimed; he changed the very context within which he found himself. It may be hard to think of yourself as exactly ‘the same person’ if you have in effect changed the social environment that gives you your self-definition!

Method: Problems and opportunities of insider research

But what about the question of method?

What about me? When I carried out my ethnographic study, did I come to adopt the worldview of those I studied?

Before answering this directly, let’s point out the two most obvious differences between undercover police officers and ethnographers in the environmental direct action movement.

First and most obviously, the police officer is undercover for a reason – because his or her aim is to find (or, it is alleged, create) 'intelligence' for the purposes of disruption. She or he is insider and against the movement. The social scientific ethnographer is usually neutral or sympathetic. Linked to this, the ethnographer is not usually covert.

Some researchers have tried to justify covert research (such as Laud Humphreys in his classic study of ‘homosexual encounters in public places’, in 1970). But there are practical as well as ethical reasons why most declare themselves to those whose worlds they are researching. For one thing, trying to hide one’s true aims or identity risks discovery, anger and physical assault (such as Laud Humphreys in his classic study etc. etc.)

In my own study, I needed people in the movement to help me with the project, and to do so meant being open about my intentions.
But to be open, to gain trust, to get people to co-operate meant to be part of the campaign. Why should people give their time to a careerist parasite? I chose to research a campaign whose aims I shared. If ‘activism’ is the topic, activists are the best researchers.

So did I ‘go native’ in my analysis? The research was an attempt to say something about the processes by which people change their identities in collective action. It was not a study of the rights and wrongs of the Conservative government’s road programme, or of direct action as a political form, of police ‘public order’ tactics, or of the reality of global warming. Of course I was a subject, with my views on these and other things that people in the campaign talked about. But, for my research, I wanted to understand something of the police view of ‘the crowd’ just as much as I wanted to document and analyse the protesters’ views. By adoption of an ethnographic framework – involving interviews, observations, soundtrack recordings, and collection of archive material – I was able to achieve both of these things.

Returning to the current furore, for ‘crowd psychologists’ just as much as ‘activists’ and any other person, it is impossible not to have an opinion about the extraordinary lengths the UK police went to in order to ‘gather evidence’ on the UK and European environmental protest movements. For a critical discussion of the proportionality, assumptions and priorities that lay behind the fiasco, check out Clifford Stott’s statements on his site:


Drury, J., & Stott, C. (2001). Bias as a research strategy in participant observation: the case of intergroup conflict. Field Methods, 13, 47-67.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Perceiving and managing crowds – a survey

We all have ideas about the psychology of crowds. Some of these ideas may be based on actual experience, some may be based on common-sense ideas that exist in popular culture. Research has begun to document these popular representations of crowd psychology. Such research is more than academic. It matters – indeed, it can be a matter of life and death – whether those who have responsibility for event management, policing, crowd safety and emergency planning and disaster response have accurate models of how crowds behave.

With Dr David Novelli ( ) here at Sussex and Dr Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool ( ) I am involved in a large-scale study, surveying crowd management professionals on their beliefs about crowd behaviour in mass emergencies and their views on appropriate crowd management policies and practices. While considerable work has been carried out on the role of police officers’ beliefs about crowds in ‘public order’ dynamics (see ), this is the first time a systematic study has been carried out on professionals’ beliefs about crowds in emergencies.

If the previous work is anything to go by, the findings from this study will contribute to a better understanding of crowd management in emergencies - enhancing collective resilience in times of danger.

We are looking for the following types of people to take part in our survey:

UK event safety/security personnel – including stewards of sports and music events
UK event managers/ planners
UK emergency services personnel (particularly police officers)
Members of the public (for comparison)

If you or anyone you know is willing to take part in our survey, which takes around 15 minutes to complete, see the link below:

Monday, 3 January 2011

Protesting is good for you, say psychologists

University of Sussex
16 December 2002

Protesting is good for you, say psychologists

A study by psychologists at the University of Sussex has found that as well as potentially changing the world, participation in protests and demonstrations is actually good for you.
This is one of the findings of a large-scale interview study led by Dr John Drury, Lecturer in Social Psychology, into protest crowds and social movements, often known as 'collective action'.
"Many published activist accounts refer to feelings of encouragement and confidence emerging from experiences of collective action," says Dr Drury. "But it is not always clear how and why such empowerment occurs, so we aimed to explain what factors within a collective action event contribute most to such feelings."
The study involved in-depth interviews with nearly 40 activists from a variety of backgrounds, in which over 160 experiences of collective action were described. The range of events described by interviewees included traditional marches, fox-hunt sabotages, anti-capitalist street parties, environmental direct actions, and industrial mass pickets.

"The main factors contributing to a sense of empowerment were the realization of the collective identity, the sense of movement potential, unity and mutual support within a crowd," says Dr Drury.
"However, what was also interesting was the centrality of emotion in the accounts. Empowering events were almost without exception described as joyous occasions. Participants experienced a deep sense of happiness and even euphoria in being involved in protest events. Simply recounting the events in the interview itself brought a smile to the faces of the interviewees."
Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the role of positive experiences and emotions not just in making people feel good but also in promoting psychological and physical health. Uplifting experiences are associated with a variety of indicators of well-being, such as speed of physiological recovery; ability to cope with physical stressors; and the reduction of pain, anxiety and depression.
"Collective actions, such as protests, strikes, occupations and demonstrations, are less common in the UK than they were perhaps 20 years ago," says Dr Drury. "The take-home message from this research therefore might be that people should get more involved in campaigns, struggles and social movements, not only in the wider interest of social change, but also for their own personal good."

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Crowd Control: How We Avoid Mass Panic (Scientific American Mind, 2010)

In emergencies, people don't panic. In fact, they show a remarkable ability to organize themselves and support one another
When a crisis hits in a crowded place, people often undergo a shift, identifying themselves more as group members than individuals.
Emergency planners can help ordinary people act as “first responders” by giving them practical information as the situation unfolds.

September 11, 2001. In the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, intense fires are burning in and above the impact zones struck by hijacked airliners. People evacuating from the 110-story towers realize they are in danger, but they are not in a blind panic. They are not screaming and trampling one another. As they descend the densely packed stairwells, they are waiting in line, taking turns and assisting those who need help. A few office workers hold doors open and direct traffic. Thanks to the orderly evacuation and unofficial rescue efforts, the vast majority of people below the impact zones get out of the buildings alive.
Not everyone was an angel on 9/11. But accounts of the Twin Towers evacuation show that there was none of the “mass panic” that many emergency planners expect to see in a disaster. In fact, when researchers look closely at almost any major disaster, they find little to support the assumption that ordinary people lose their heads in these extraordinary situations. Instead they find that individuals not only behave sensibly in emergencies but also display a solidarity that can be a valuable asset.
These results have important implications for emergency planning. They suggest that ordinary people should be viewed as “first responders” and given practical information about their situation so that they can make rational choices. Instead of seeking to herd people as if they were frightened sheep, emergency managers should facilitate the remarkable self-organizing capabilities of crowds.
The Myth of Mass Panic
The image of the panicked crowd is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination. Hardly any self-respecting Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without one scene of people running wildly in all directions and screaming hysterically. Television newscasters perpetuate this stereotype with reports that show shoppers competing for items in what is described as “panic buying” and traders gesticulating frantically as “panic” sweeps through the stock market.
The idea of mass panic shapes how we plan for, and respond to, emergency events. In Pennsylvania, for example, the very term is inscribed in safety regulations known as the state’s Fire and Panic Code. Many public officials assume that ordinary people will become highly emotional in an emergency, especially in a crowded situation and that providing information about the true nature of the danger is likely to make individuals panic even more. Emergency management plans and policies often intentionally conceal information: for example, event marshals may be instructed to inform one another of a fire using code words, to prevent people from overhearing the news—and overreacting.
Mathematicians and engineers who model “crowd dynamics” often rely on similar assumptions describing behaviors such as “herding,” “flocking” and, of course, “panic.” As the late Jonathan Sime (an environmental psychologist formerly at the University of Surrey in England) pointed out, efforts to “design out disaster” have typically treated people as unthinking or instinctive rather than as rational, social beings. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on the width of doorways than on communication technol­ogies that might help people make informed decisions about their own safety.
These ideas about crowd behavior permeate the academic world, too. For many years influential psychology textbooks have illustrated mass panic by citing supposed examples such as the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in Chicago in which some 600 people perished and the Cocoanut Grove Theater fire of 1942 in Boston in which 492 people died. In the textbook explanations, theatergoers burned to death as a result of their foolish overreaction to danger. But Jerome M. Chertkoff and Russell H. Kushigian of Indiana University, the first social psychologists to analyze the Cocoanut Grove fire in depth, found that the nightclub managers had jeopardized public safety in ways that are shocking today. In a 1999 book on the psychology of emergency egress and ingress, Chertkoff and Kushigian concluded that physical obstructions, not mass panic, were responsible for the loss of life in the infamous fire

Leverhulme-funded project on event managers' understandings of the crowd

13 September 2010 - SUSSEX

Leverhulme-funded project on event managers' 

understandings of the crowd

New research by University of Sussex academic Dr John Drury could help UK event managers to manage potential mass emergencies and facilitate crowd events more effectively - with a bit of help from Fatboy Slim.
The research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will feature a survey to investigate how far crowd managers such as the local authorities, stewards, police and security teams subscribe to common "disaster myths" or other more positive views of crowds, and how these inform their decision making. The findings will also help shape further work into how crowd behaviours vary in relation to the way crowds are managed.

The survey, the first of its kind to be undertaken, will document the opinions of those in positions of responsibility for the preparation for and management of mass emergencies.

The second part of the project involves an analysis of official guidance documentation, to determine whether such psychological ’myths’ have endorsement by policy-makers and others in higher authority on the management of mass emergencies.

Finally, the researchers will examine how police and event managers’ representations of crowd events operate in practice, through a case study of two large dance-parties featuring chart-topping DJ Fatboy Slim, which took place on Brighton Beach.

Popular opinion tends to see a crowd in a potential emergency situation as a chaotic mass of panic-stricken individuals who need to be herded and controlled.

Previous research by Dr Drury, however, has shown consistently that mass emergency behaviour is orderly and cooperative and far removed from popular representations of crowd behavior - the so-called ’disaster myths’, which include ’mass panic’, violence, disorder and chaos.

Dr Drury, who is conducting the research with Dr Clifford Stott, of the University of Liverpool, says: "These ’myths’ suggest that crowds in emergencies are psychologically vulnerable and in need of top-down expert care and control.

"Our research in the related field of crowd protest, however, has shown that some forms of intervention by the authorities can inadvertently create and escalate the mass conflict that they seek to prevent. This is because some senior police officers tend to view crowds as inherently irrational and prone to violence. We will test to see how far such views are also held in the management of mass emergencies."

The first beach party, Fatboy Slim’s Beach Boutique in 2002, was a free music event that drew huge numbers of fans from all over the UK. The resulting overcrowding overwhelmed the local authorities, stewards and emergency services. A follow-up event in 2007 was more closely controlled, being ticket only.

Dr Drury says: "The question here is to what extent were the decisions of the organisers of the second event shaped by their concerns about potential disaster, following the earlier event? What was the balance between these fears, positive representations of the party crowd, and logistical and legal considerations?

"We also want to discover to what extent did attempts to prevent ’disaster’ limit the enjoyment of party-goers, and undermine party-goers’ practical and psychological abilities independently to care for each at moments of stress during the event?"

The overall aim of the research is to provide scientific data and practical advice that will inform good practice in all kinds of crowd management and policy.