The Panic Myth

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

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.?

Dispelling the myth of public panic, Clarke argues, ?leads to
optimism about people. If people generally act well under the most
trying of circumstances?precisely when it would be easiest to turn
their backs on others?it gives us reason to look for the good and
the sensible in them at other times as well.? He concludes, ?Our
leaders would do well to see us as partners in recovery rather than
as a ?constituency? to be handled.?U

Subscriptions to Contexts: $40/yr. for individuals (4
issues) from University of California Press?Journals Division, 2000
Center St., #303, Berkeley, CA 94704. A publication of the American
Sociological Association
, Contexts: Understanding People in
Their Social Worlds accomplishes that rarest of feats:
presenting accessible writing from academia. Recent topics include
the math of slavery reparations, the promise and pretense of
evolutionary psychology, and how to make sense of survey results.
Slice-of-life photo essays spice up the issues.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.