The Panic Myth

In a crisis, people behave better than you might think

| March / April 2003

WHATEVER YOU DO, even if you actually spot flames, don?t yell ?fire? in a crowded theater. You know how excitable people are?they?ll panic, and in the resulting stampede, more will be hurt, possibly even killed, than would have been injured by the fire itself.

At least that?s the conventional wisdom. But is panic really inevitable? If you were in a packed theater when smoke started billowing in, would you elbow your way to the exit sign, oblivious to those you trampled in your selfish bid to escape?

Probably not, according to Lee Clarke, writing in Contexts (Fall 2002). ?People die the same way they live, with friends, loved ones, and colleagues?in communities. When danger arises, the rule?as in normal situations?is for people to help those next to them before they help themselves.?

Clarke cites five decades of study by the Disaster Research Center, now at the University of Delaware, that seems to indicate that humans?even in traumatic situations?tend toward altruism rather than selfishness. He points to many stories from 9/11 about people helping colleagues, and even strangers.

The myth of public panic has endured, Clarke writes, because it?s useful?providing an easy, though erroneous, explanation for complex situations. Take the Who?s 1979 concert in Cincinnati: The crush that killed 11 people who were waiting for the coliseum doors to open has been popularly understood as panic, even though other concertgoers tried to protect those who fell by creating a human cordon around them. It was those farther back in the crowd, unaware of the danger, who kept up the fatal pressure. But blaming supposed human weakness for the tragedy deflected attention from the organizational problems that were more directly liable: a building unable to accommodate 8,000 anxious concertgoers, a lack of emergency procedures, and management that failed to forecast such a crowd.

Not surprisingly, high-level decision makers are particularly invested in propagating the panic myth. Not only can it provide a potential cover for malfeasance but, by undermining public trust in the ability of regular folk to do the right thing, it justifies keeping a tight rein on potentially inflammatory information. Thus, the familiar refrains: ?There was never any danger to the public? and ?Everything is under control.?