Friday, 10 October 2014

Ebola and the usefulness of ‘panic’

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.