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

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