The truth about panic
No self-respecting Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without a scene where crowd members flee in apparent blind panic, and through their over-reaction, lack of judgement and reason become the agents of their own destruction. Nor is the image of panic limited to fiction. It dominates media accounts of behaviour of disasters in general[i]. And it has certainly been widely used in response to the current coronavirus outbreak – most commonly in relation to the notion of ‘panic buying’. As one widely disseminated tweet put it, commenting on a video of shoppers stripping a supermarket aisle of toilet paper: ‘we have lost the plot’[ii].
But in scientific circles ‘panic’ – and, more specifically, the notion that it is the blind and competitive pursuit of self-interest that turns disasters into tragedies – has come under increasing scrutiny. On the one hand, where people have died it has generally been to the fact that they under-reacted (failing to heed signs of danger in time) rather than over-reacted and less to do with psychological failures than with practical or logistical failures (such as blocking or even locking the exits)[iii]. On the other hand, close analysis of what people do in disasters paints a picture that is very different to the conventional image. While some may act selfishly, many people behave in an orderly and measured way that is structured by social norms. They help each-other, wait for each-other, and they don’t only help family and friends but strangers as well[iv]. Indeed, there are times when people have died not because of an excess of selfishness but rather in being delayed by looking after others[v].
In fact, the concept of ‘panic’ has largely been abandoned by those who study disasters since it neither describes nor explains what people do in such situations[vi]. People don’t generally act irrationally or selfishly in crises. To the contrary, recent research emphasises how experiencing a common threat or danger can lead people to develop a sense of shared identity or ‘togetherness’[vii] and, where this happens, it leads in turn to enhanced cooperation and support for others[viii]. What this means is that, far from people being irrational agents of own destruction, their tendency toward mutual self-help in emergencies is the best resource available to a society[ix]. And there are already signs of such mutuality developing during the present crisis in Italy[x].
However, these tendencies are fragile and far from inevitable. Shared identity can occur to a greater or lesser extent, and – as demonstrated by both real life studies and virtual reality simulations, this is associated with better or worse support and coordination in dealing with an emergency[xi]. On the one hand, then, the emergence of shared identity in a crisis (and of a more effective response) can be encouraged by addressing the public in collective terms and urging them to act for the communal good[xii]. Conversely, shared identity (and effective responses) can be undermined by creating divisions and inducing competition between people.
This is precisely what is happening right now with all the talk of ‘panic buying’. In a context where people are being asked to prepare for potential self-isolation over an extended period, stories about others in the community being out of control and buying up excessive amounts of a valuable resource serves to create a sense of ‘everyone for themselves and the devil take the hindmost’. Moreover, it makes it entirely reasonable for people to go out and buy such resources themselves and this is further compounded by images of empty shelves which illustrate the cost if one delays purchase. All in all, if one is persuaded that one’s neighbours are irrationally buying up (say) toilet roll, then it isn’t ‘panic’ to go out and buy up toilet rolls oneself before they are all gone. It is an entirely reasonable response to the information one has available. If anything, one would be daft not to respond.
The more general point is that use of the notion of ‘panic’ – and of panic-buying more specifically – is not simply unscientific. It is actively harmful. Stories that employ the language of ‘panic’ help create the very phenomena that they are written to condemn. They help create the selfishness and competitiveness which turns sensible preparations into dysfunctional stockpiling[xiii].
In conclusion, the behaviour we are currently seeing in supermarkets isn’t panic buying and should not be described as such. Even telling people not to panic is counter-productive – because this in itself suggests that there is something to ‘panic’ about , that some people are actually panicking, and that therefore we cannot rely each other. The reason why this is so toxic is that, in fact, we will best get through this crisis by acting together as a community. In practical terms, this means that we need to trust each other. We need to carry on as normal. Above all, our message to the media, to politicians and to expert commentators is: don’t say panic!
Stephen Reicher, Wardlaw Professor of Psychology, University of St. Andrews
Clifford Stott, Professor of Psychology, University of Keele
John Drury, Professor of Psychology, University of Sussex
[i] Clarke, L. (2002). Panic: Myth or reality?. Contexts, 1, 21-26.
[iii] Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT, Praeger
[iv] Johnson, N. R. (1988). Fire in a crowded theater: A descriptive investigation of the emergence of panic. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 6, 7-26.
Elliott, R. (1996). Inside the Beverly Hills supper club fire. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company.
[v] Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.
[vi] Quarantelli, E. L. (2001). Panic, sociology of. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 11020–11023). New York: Pergamon Press.
Sime, J. D. (1990). The concept of ‘panic’. In D. Canter (Ed.), Fires and human behaviour (2nd Ed., pp. 63–81). London: David Fulton.
[vii] Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A. (2009). Beyond help: a social psychology of social solidarity and social cohesion. In M. Snyder, & S. Sturmer (Eds.), The Psychology of Prosociall Behaviour Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
[viii] Drury, J., & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep, S. A. Haslam, C. Haslam, V. Kemp, & D. Maughan (Eds). Social scaffolding: Applying the lessons of contemporary social science to health, public mental health and healthcare. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.
[ix] Drury, J., & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep, S. A. Haslam, C. Haslam, V. Kemp, & D. Maughan (Eds). Social scaffolding: Applying the lessons of contemporary social science to health, public mental health and healthcare. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.
[xi] Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S., Burton, A., Schofield, D., Hardwick, A., Graham, D. & Langston, P. (2009). Cooperation versus competition in a mass emergency evacuation: A new laboratory simulation and a new theoretical model. Behavior research methods, 41,, 957-970.
[xiii] Bjørkdahl, K., & Carlsen, B. (2017). Fear of the Fear of the Flu: Assumptions About Media Effects in the 2009 Pandemic. Science Communication, 39, 358-381.
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