Crowds in Crises

Back in 2015 the world was captivated by the Universal film “Jurassic World”. Viewers praised Chris Pratt’s performance in this science fiction thriller, but were more entertained by a different kind of hero. During a pterosaur attack causing resort guests to push, shove, and trample each other as they flee, a man is spotted grabbing two margaritas before seeking his own safety…or the safety of the second margarita’s owner. #priorities

Movies typically depict a crowd’s response to an emergency or disaster scenario as emotionally driven, almost irrationally selfish. It’s widely assumed that as mass hysteria and panic take hold of a crowd, people do whatever they can to better serve themselves. But does this actually occur off the screens? Are we really all the margarita man?

Social psychology says no. Research dating back as far as the 1950’s show that behavior in disaster response is generally pro-social and collaboratively altruistic. History backs this theory up.

  • The SAGE Journals article – Panic: Myth or Reality? contains testimonies from 9/11 survivors recalling the feeling of together-ness and calmness rather than panic. They provided over 30 pages of stories where people were helping one another.
  • An article published by The Guardian paints a picture of camaraderie through the eyes of 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami survivors. Memories include a man making sure a child’s safety was secured before his own, a volunteer boat crew devoting an entire day to rescue efforts, and people transporting strangers to hospitals.
  • The International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters reported that the pre-existing norms of queuing, men assisting women and children first, and able bodied people helping the elderly and impaired had emerged during the 2005 London Bombings.

Mass media do a poor job of displaying the true heroism in human behavior. The internet is saturated with statistics and stories of altruistic behavior in the face of emergencies and disasters. If your perspective of crowds in crises is still influenced by movies, I’ll leave you with this:

“In Hollywood, no one knows anything”- William Goldman

(and he wrote the cherished classic The Princess Bride…which is basically the equivalent of being omniscient…just something to consider)