Settling for panic

To panic or not to panic.

In cases of impending disaster, there is a “conventional wisdom” that the disaster would not be communicated to the public, to prevent panic.  The argument is that the loss of life and property arising from a disaster plus its antecedent panic will be greater than that of the disaster alone.  Since a community will suffer less overall if impending disasters are hidden from public view, governments tend to accept such “sins of omission” as appropriate policy.

Whether you agree or not with this approach, I think you should rather be wondering why we aren’t working more toward social norms that exclude the kind of panic that governments typically expect.


It’s a staple of Hollywood (e.g., Criminal Minds) and the popular press (e.g., this article in the Telegraph): something terrible happens – a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, an apocalypse – and society collectively loses its shit.  Looting, violence, murder and mayhem, infrastructure breaks down completely, utter selfishness, and absolute chaos ensue.  This is, unfortunately, the view also taken by government and policy makers (and a certain fraction of the tin-foil hat crowd).  I say “unfortunately” because I have found no reasonable evidence supporting this perspective, popular though it is.

The research tells a different story.  For instance, Auf der Heide [1] finds that “…community resilience and unity, strengthening of social ties, self-help, heightened initiative, altruism, and prosocial behaviour more often prevail[s]” in disaster situations. Gantt and Gantt [2] refer to panic as a “myth” of disasters.  Run a Google search (or, better, a Google Scholar search) on the terms disaster panic myth and you will find a wide array of current research on the matter.  There seems to be significant evidence that people just don’t tend to go apeshit during a disaster.  This is borne out by my own personal experience: I walked 20 km during the Northeast Blackout of 2003 mostly through downtown Toronto: I’ve never seen such collaboration by the citizenry as during that time.

This, for me, is a relatively simple question to settle.  There is abundant information out there about the behaviour of the citizenry during disasters.  And, unfortunately, we continue to accumulate more information on this every year.  There is little question that the analytic tools exist to accurately describe behaviour under these circumstances, and to compare those behaviours to conventional behaviours.  We will then know how people behave, and, if we have any sense, we will design our disaster response policies in light of that analysis.

(Some say we do already know these things, and that policy-makers and the media are just not using that knowledge to inform disaster preparedness. That may be.  In any case, gathering even more evidence cannot possibly hurt.)

There is a deeper question, however, that is of more interest to me, and that is, I think, more important in the long run: Why isn’t anyone doing anything about the underlying social dynamics?  The question applies whether it is true or not that all hell would break loose in a disaster, albeit in different ways.

If panic is the way of it, then the fundamental question matters in the same way that life-saving surgery matters after emergency triage.  That is, if a government is willing to lie to prevent panic, then they’re only dealing with the symptom.  Clearly, panic in the face of disaster is not in anyone’s interest; it’s an instance of the tragedy of the commons. But to lie to people to prevent panic assumes that people will panic, which is a rather sorry comment for one to make of one’s “fellow man.”  Indeed, since there doesn’t seem to be any serious work to study/explain/prevent this assumed tendency to panic, one might even wonder if government actually cared.

Of course, governments don’t really exist – everything a government does is actually done by people.  Every time the government lies, there’s an actual person doing the lying.  People who are convinced to lie may find it hard at first. But it gets easier with practice.  Eventually, a whole generation has learned that lying isn’t so bad – at least insofar as their now corrupted consciences are concerned.  That’s a lose-lose situation.

But if this is how it is, then we really should be looking for ways to change social norms to make panic unacceptable behaviour.  I’m not talking about some dictatorial social experiment. I’m talking about the sort of thing that happens all the time; like how cigarette smoking has become “uncool” and continues to be more and more socially unacceptable.  It’ll take years – decades maybe – but the long-term benefits are significant.  One might well expect that a community that tends not to panic will also be more tightly connected.  There will be greater trust, more awareness of the needs and desires of “the other,” and in the end a healthier society.

If, on the other hand, the research that I’ve found is right, and that panic should not be the expected response to disaster, then we have a different situation.  In this case, policy-makers are just being stupid and selfish.  Since by definition disaster are disastrous, it makes sense to have a variety of contingency plans, including ones that assume people will do the right thing.  It may be that such plans exist, and that I’ve only not found evidence of them; it’s certainly the case that media outlets seems to report only on panic-based disaster plans, but that could just be a result of their own drive to “increase shareholder value.”

If people act better during a disaster, and not worse, we should still be studying their behaviour carefully.  If we understood what factors stimulate better behaviour, we should then try to modify social norms such that – short of causing disasters of course – people will choose to behave better under normal circumstances.  Again, everyone wins in the long run.

And one last thing.  I should have thought that, given the increasing frequency of various disasters – especially those resulting from climate change – there would have been more discussion “out there” about this sort of thing.  Maybe I’m not looking in the right places.  If anyone knows of good resources in this regard – feel free to leave them in a comment.

The one thing that we should not settle for, is panic.

  1. Disasters: Panic, the “Disaster Syndrome,” and Looting (2004) – http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/emergency_response/common_misconceptions.pdf
  2. Disaster psychology: dispelling the myths of panic (2012) – http://www.asse.org/professionalsafety/pastissues/057/08/042_049_F1Gan_0812.pdf

This post was inspired by a scene of the Criminal Minds episode called Amplification.  In that episode, some nut case had invented a new and particularly nasty version of anthrax.  In the scene, Prentiss and Rossi were investigating a suburban home owned by a suspect.  They were preceded into the house by a hazmat-suited technician.  A neighbour asks the FBI agents if she should be concerned and whether she and her children should get away. Prentiss lies about the danger.  At the end of the episode, Prentiss notes that she will lie again in the future and that it will be easier for her.

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