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


  1. There should be a 'like' button for this :o)

  2. Another good article John, these will be a very useful resource. They are pitched really well in an accessible language that makes clear some of the key assumptions of the different perspectives. Keep it up!


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