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The basest instincts or the noblest intentions? An interview study of survivors of emergencies and disasters John Drury, Chris Cocking & Steve Reicher BPS SPSAC06 Popular images of mass emergencies and evacuations ‘Panic’: ‘Instinct’ overwhelms socialization Emotion outweighs reasoning

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The basest instincts or the noblest intentions?An interview study of survivors of emergencies and disasters

John Drury, Chris Cocking

& Steve Reicher

BPS SPSAC06


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Popular images of mass emergencies and evacuations

  • ‘Panic’:

    • ‘Instinct’ overwhelms socialization

    • Emotion outweighs reasoning

    • Rumours and sentiments spread uncritically

    • Competitive and personally selfish behaviours predominate


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Disaster research literature

  • Panic is rare

  • Behaviour is guided by norms

  • People adhere to everyday social roles

  • Affiliation (existing social ties) determine how people behave, whether they survive


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Theoretical developments and limitations of the disaster research tradition

The evacuating/emergency/disaster crowd as a social (not individualised/instinctual) phenomenon

‘Sociality’ is limited to that of the small group:

  • Affiliation is with with those one already has attachments

  • A ‘norm’ of helping strangers would require an extended period of ‘milling’ (face to face interaction)


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Problems for explanation

  • Helping and even self-sacrifice for strangers

  • Co-ordination in an ‘aggregate’

    A possible explanation for some aspects of mass emergency behaviour

    Shared fate in relation to threat/emergency creates sense of we-ness (Clarke, 2002)


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Rationale and hypotheses

Drawing on the SCT account of help/cohesion to explain behaviour in mass emergencies:

H1: In the face of danger there is a perception of shared fate, and hence a common identity emerges

H2: The common identity means that those in danger help others, including strangers

H3: if there is no common identity, there will not be this level of help.


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The study

  • Interviews with (21) survivors of (11) disasters (and perceived/potential disasters): e.g. Hillsborough (1989), sinking ships, Bradford City fire (1985), Fatboy Slim beach party (2002)

  • Questions on: feelings of danger, feelings towards others around them, own and others’ behaviours (helpful and/or personally selfish).

  • Analysed qualitatively and quantitatively


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H1: Danger  shared fate  common identity

Most who described a sense of threat (13 vs 1) also referred to a sense of unity (12 vs 7) in relation to this threat:

TC: Oh yeah of course I I get on the train every day. So a train journey you would normally take is, you know, I myself get on the train at ten to seven in the mornings, sit down, open the paper and there might be one or two people talking out of a completely packed carriage.

Int: Yeah.

TC: So, you know, that that sort of thing and the perception… of of being involved in that, and everyone’s involved and let’s do, let’s group together’

(Train accident)


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H2: Common identity  indiscriminate help

Most who described a sense of unity (12 vs 7) also described giving help to others (12 vs 6) and, even more so, cited examples of others helping others (18 vs 3) – sometimes at a clear cost or risk to the personal self:

‘the behaviour of many people in that crowd and simply trying to help their fellow supporters was heroic in some cases. So I don’t think in my view there was any question that there was an organic sense of… unity of crowd behaviour. It was clearly the case, you know.. it was clearly the case that people were trying to get people who were seriously injured out of that crowd, it was seriously a case of trying to get people to hospital, get them to safety .. I just wish I’d been able to.. to prevail on a few more people not to.. put themselves in danger.’

(Hillsborough 3)


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H3: No common identity  less help

At the Fatboy Slim beach party, while some felt in danger (from the tide and the crush) and described a sense of unity, for another interviewee there was no perceived danger, and others present were perceived as not part of a common group and indeed were seen to behave as competing individuals:


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H3: No common identity  less help

’It wasn’t a group thing, it was a very individual lots of individuals together... I felt like I was with my .. five or six friends and that was it.. and it was like the others were the enemy [ ] It wasn’t like ‘oh I was at Fat Boy Slim, I experienced all the the bad times with my fellow clubbers,’ it wasn’t like that, it was the opposite.’

‘the fact that people were trying to barge past me, I thought that was really selfish. No-one was letting me go first. There was no courteousness at all’

(Fatboy Slim 3)


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Preliminary conclusions

  • N of Ps small, but rich accounts (of n of incidents, behaviours, perceptions, feelings)

  • No evidence for widespread panic

  • Some evidence for affiliation, roles and norms

  • Evidence of common unity and its correlation with indiscriminate and self-sacrificial helping makes prima facie case for an SCT based account of mass evacuation behaviour:

  • Disaster turns an aggregate into a psychological crowd


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Post-script:London Bombs, July 2005

  • Contemporaneous newspaper accounts (141 articles, 19 newspapers)

  • Web accounts (114 people)

  • GLA public hearing statements (26 people)

  • Other published personal accounts (13 accounts)

  • Our interviews/e-mails sent to us (10 people)


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London bombs, 2005 – a preliminary analysis

Newspapers (victims’/witnesses’ accounts):

  • 57 references to ‘panic’

  • BUT 37 references to ‘calm’ and 58 to an ‘orderly evacuation’

  • 57 accounts from (victims) who helped others, and 140 reports of other victims helping others, despite the common fear of death (70 reports)


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London bombs, 2005 – a preliminary analysis

GLA data:

  • Most speakers were amongst strangers

  • Most speakers were injured or traumatized

  • Most speakers at some point thought they would die

  • M number of people ‘I helped’ = 3; M number who ‘helped me’ = 1.6; M number of ‘others who helped others’ = 3.6

  • 9 reports of people risking their lives to help others


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London bombs, 2005 - a preliminary analysis

Our interviews. Process: Threat, shared fate, unity, co-operation

LB1: There was people generally giving what they had … you might have a bottle of water or something they would have given them straight away to the other people but you know there [ ] was definitely empathy and unity among everyone on the train

CC: can you say how much unity there was on a scale of 1-10?

LB1 I’d say it was very high I’d say it was 7 or 8 out of 10

CC: ok and comparing to before the blast happened what do you think the unity was like before?

LB1 I’d say very low- 3 out of 10 I mean you don’t really think about unity in a normal train journey, it just doesn’t happen you just want to get from A to B, get a seat maybe [ ] I felt that we’re all in the same boat together [ ] … yeah so I felt exactly I felt quite close to the people near me


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Conclusions

  • Panic is a feature of individuals not crowds

  • Mutual helping is common, even when people fear death, and even amongst strangers

  • At least some of this mutual helping is explicable in terms of a common identity amongst victims, which emerges in response to their shared fate in relation to the emergency itself.


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