Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hawaii missile alert & 'panic'

The residents of Hawaii recently suffered a nasty shock when human error resulted in an emergency text (issued via a push alert that is sent out to to all mobile phones in the vicinity to warn the public of emergencies), warning them of a missile attack that went out at 08:07 local time (18:07 GMT). The mistake was corrected via email 18 minutes later but there was no follow-up mobile text for 38 minutes, which was how most saw the initial warning, (and how many people are going to check their e-mails in such situations anyway?!), causing an understandable degree of fear and anxiety as locals believed that a missile attack was imminent.

The missile-strike message Hawaiians saw on their phones was a false alarm
How the message appeared on mobile phones

Thankfully, no such missile attack happened, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are now some pretty hurried investigations going on into how such an embarrassing mistake happened (apparently an official pressed the wrong button during a shift change!). As is common with incidents such as these, the mainstream media have gone overboard in their coverage of the incident, with the word 'panic' yet again being used liberally to describe how people responded (here are some examples are from the BBC and CNBC). However, I would argue, as I have done in the research that I have done on previous mass emergencies (see references below) that people's behaviour during this event were far from the 'panicked' responses that are often assumed, and labeling them as such could have negative long-term consequences.

It's interesting that accounts on social media by people who were in Hawaii at the time tend to be much more nuanced than the mainstream media, and while it is clear that people were fearful and anxious (who wouldn't be in such a situation?), this didn't mean that they were 'panicking' (which implies selfish and/or irrational behaviour). So for example, southpaw tweeted;
The people I was with were pretty stoical. Nervous, but not panicked. The loved ones they were talking with and FaceTiming, though, were often really stressed and terrified

Sydney Ember wrote in the NY Times wrote that while people were clearly fearful & upset, there was also co-operation, and people tried to contact loved ones;

At Konawaena High School on the Island of Hawaii, where a high school wrestling championship was taking place, school officials, more accustomed to alerts of high surf or tsunamis, moved people to the center of the gym as they tried to figure out how to take shelter from a missile.
“Everyone cooperated,” said Kellye Krug, the athletic director at the school. “Once they were gathered, we let them use cellphones to reach loved ones. There were a couple of kids who were emotional, the coaches were right there to console kids. After the retraction was issued, we gave kids time to reach out again.”

It's also worth bearing in mind that in the current context of heightened tensions in the Korean peninsular, and that Hawaii is only 20 minutes away from any missile launch by North Korea, such a text alert could be considered as a credible threat (especially because it wasn't corrected for over half an hour). Therefore, I would say that far from being a 'panicked' response, trying to contact your loved ones and seeking shelter, when you've just had a text alert telling you to do just that, is probably the most sensible and logical thing to do in that situation. Furthermore, in my last blog on a similar incident at Oxford Circus Oxford Circus tube station in London in Nov 2017 (when false rumours of a terrorist attack sparked a mass evacuation), myself and others pointed out that official government advice during emergencies is to Run, Hide, Tell, so it's rather unfair to describe it as 'panic' when people do just that!

I think how this incident unfolded and was reported also illustrates a couple of broader points where there could be serious long-term consequences. Firstly, my issue with the mis-use of the term 'panic' isn't simple word-play, as it implies that people over-reacted, and so in future incidents, people may be less likely to follow advice for fear of social ridicule from others (and/or the media) for 'panicking'. Secondly, the fact that it took over 30 minutes to correct the false text message, means that if a real alert is sent out in future, people could assume that it is another mistake and may delay taking vital precautionary action until it is too late. So, to counter the numerous irrational narratives we have seen about this incident, I would like to finish with a more positive tweet from Jennifer Lazo, an Emergency Manager in the Bay Area, California;
To the people in Hawaii who read the alert and took action- finding shelter, getting kids in a safe spot, telling their neighbors about the alert- Thank you. Don't let anyone tell you that you overreacted. Your response could have saved lives

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling,10 (2) p.219-36. DOI:10.1002/jip.1389

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Crowd responses to Oxford Circus incident

Londoners may well be breathing a collective sigh of relief after the evacuation of Oxford Circus tube station and subsequent lock-down of shops on Oxford Street, was unjustified because the feared terrorist attack did not materialize. However, as with most coverage of such incidents, media reports have been peppered with the use of irrationalist terms (such as 'panic' & 'stampede'), and it has resulted in a fair degree of media requests for crowd psychologists to do interviews (the ones I know of are listed below). Regular readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar that myself and others who work in the field of crowd safety management are highly critical of the use of such terms to describe crowd emergency behaviour & I regularly critique coverage of such emergencies (most recently, the failed bomb attack at Parsons Green tube station, this September). This time the media are particularly keen on using these terms, because there wasn't actually a 'real' emergency, and so this presumably confirms that people were over-reacting and hence 'panicking'. However, I will argue in this blog that it's very easy to write off crowd responses as 'panic' without properly examining the actual behaviors of those involved, or the social context in which they are operating.

I will start with the general point that it's misleading to describe incidents such as these as 'panic', because it implies irrational behaviour, and that if there are any casualties, it is the fault of those who 'panicked'. Furthermore, one could say that it is a perfectly logical act for people to flee what they believe is a potentially life-threatening incident. Ironically, under-reaction in emergencies (especially fires) can be a worse problem, as if people delay action to escape possible danger, this could decrease their chances of a successful evacuation. In his blog, John Drury provides a 10 point guide for journalists, and he highlights the irony that government advice during terrorist incidents is to 'Run, Hide, Tell', but when people do follow this advice, the media call it 'panic'! 

With relation to specifically happened at Oxford Circus, the media seem keener than usual to describe it as 'panic' because it turned out not to be a terrorist attack. However, the people involved in this incident would not have had the hindsight of external observers & so may not have known the apparent trigger for the incident (a fight on the platform), so fleeing when they saw a crowd surge towards them (rather than waiting to see what the threat is) may have been the most sensible thing to do given the information they had available at the time. A similar incident happened at Los Angeles (LAX) airport in August 2016 after people mistakenly believed that there had been gunshots and fled the airport terminal. I argued at the time that considering the general fear in the US of terrorist attacks at airports post 9/11, acting on such an assumption should not be seen as 'irrational', but normative behavior within a social context. 

Much has also been made of the role of rumours circulating on social media about this incident, and the singer songwriter Olly Murs got into a public spat with Piers Morgan after tweeting to his 7.83 million followers on Twitter that there had been gunshots in Selfridges. I would certainly advocate that the information disseminated in emergencies should be as accurate as possible, and that people with large numbers of followers on social media need to be careful with what they put in the public domain. However, I feel that it is a little unfair when people external to the event criticize those caught up in it for spreading inaccurate information, as they may have the hindsight that those within in it do not. It is also important to bear in mind that for rumours to spread in such incidents, they still have to be credible to be believed and acted upon by crowd members. One could say in the current context of fear of terrorist attacks in London post Westminster/ London Bridge, Parsons Green etc, that rumours of another attack could be considered a credible threat, especially since the authorities took the incident seriously enough to dispatch armed police to the scene. However, other less credible rumours (e.g. that Godzilla was charging up Oxford Street!) may not have been so readily believed. The crucial thing is for the authorities to be as open & honest as possible with the information they provide, so that people don't feel such a need to seek information about the incident from other sources. A common myth about emergencies is that if people become aware of a possible threat, then they will be come too fearful to act rationally and will therefore 'panic'. However, there is almost no evidence to support this idea, and withholding information in emergencies could even result in people delaying action to keep themselves safe, and so could ironically increase the danger.   

Armed police patrol along Oxford Street

Armed police on Oxford Street

Finally, even when crowd flight does occur, during such incidents, it's wrong to describe them as a 'stampede' because this implies unthinking animalistic behaviour. The research that I have done on crowd flight (Cocking, 2013) has found that people still tend to behave cooperatively when they flee (e.g. picking up others that fall over, waiting for friends/loved ones etc). This seems to be supported by footage of people fleeing the incident, as they don't appear to be pushing others as they get away, and many are not even running at full speed, but walking quickly, pausing and/or turning round to see what is going on etc. While there do appear to have been some casualties (16 hurt and 2 hospitalized) during the evacuation, given the likely number of people that would have been in the vicinity at 16.30 on a Friday four weeks before Christmas, this would appear to be a relatively small number, and injuries in crowd flight are usually because of crowd density or people accidentally falling over, not because they are deliberately pushing others over. 
So, to conclude, what we saw in Oxford Street this Friday, was not 'panic', and describing it as such is not only inaccurate, but also hinders detailed exploration of how we can safely manage such incidents in future. 

Media appearances by myself & John Drury:
Radio London Drivetime show 24/11 (interview from 2.48.00)
BBC news channel 25/11 at 12.10 (clip can be accessed via DropBox)
John Drury on LBC, 16.00 25/11
Radio5 Live, 25/11. (interview from 05.50)

Image may contain: 1 person

screenshot of my interview for BBC news channel with an amusing mistake in the predictive subtitles!

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling,10 (2) p.219-36. DOI:10.1002/jip.1389

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Parsons Green Tube attack

London saw another apparent terrorist attack on Friday 15th September- this time at Parsons Green Tube station in South West London, with 29 people injured in what must have been a horrifying experience for those affected. Mercifully though, it seems that the device failed to detonate fully, and so the casualties could have been much higher, with many fatalities had it exploded as intended, (given that the bomb went off on a packed tube train that can hold nearly 900 passengers during rush hour). The timing of the explosion was also fortunate, because it happened while the train was still above ground, and had it detonated fully while in a tunnel, the force of the explosion on the train and its occupants would have been much greater. So, while I wouldn't want to downplay the shock and terror that those on the train may have experienced, it looks like this incident could have been much worse.

'Stampede' or logical flight?
As with such incidents there has been blanket media coverage (including an interview I did for the BBC news channel on Friday evening), with terms such as 'panic' and 'stampede' being used liberally in both media and eye-witness accounts. For instance, BBC coverage describes a 'stampede' as people evacuated down the stairs. Those familiar with this blog will be aware that those of us who work in the field of emergency planning and response are critical of such terms, as they don't usually match up with detailed examination of what actually happens, but also because they imply that people in crowds behave selfishly and/or & irrationally. In the interview I did for BBC news, I made the point that it's not 'panic' to flee a potentially life-threatening risk, and in the current context (that this is the 5th major incident of its kind in Britain this year), it is not surprising that people rapidly fled as soon as it became apparent that there was an explosive device on the train. Previous research I have done (Cocking, 2013) has found that while instinctive crowd flight can happen (e.g. people run as soon as they see a crowd surging towards them), it is usually brief and people still co-operate with others during such flight, so the idea that people who fall over are then deliberately trampled by others as they flee is largely a myth.
However, there are also specific physical aspects of the incident at Parsons Green that need further exploration, as otherwise it is easy to  slip into using irrationalist narratives if one does not examine why certain things happened.  So, interviews with eyewitnesses include reports of people falling over each other as they evacuated down the stairs off the platform at Parsons Green, and it is possible that some injuries occurred this way (although we do not yet know how many and most of the 29 casualties appear to have been burns from the explosion). However, there are descriptions of people helping each other within the crush, and also mobile phone footage that people took of the bomb on train, so not everybody fled, and some people stayed on the platform. What happened as people ran down the stairs seems to be a crowd collapse, whereby a domino effect can happen in densely packed crowds (eg if someone falls over, then the physical pressure on those behind them means that they are forced over into the space created). This is what happened in the Bethnal Green tube station tragedy in 1943 (when 173 people died during a crowd crush as they ran down the station steps to escape an air raid), because someone fell over and others tumbled over them, creating a crowd collapse.

The incident on Friday could also have been exacerbated by some specific physical factors relating to where it happened. So, for instance, Parsons Green is quite an old Victorian station on the District Line (it was built in 1880 before the deeper tunnels of the London Underground were created), and so many of its stations are above ground (see photo below). Therefore, people had to evacuate downwards to get out of the station (rather than upwards, had they been at a station in a tunnel), and the effects of anyone falling over in such a downward fleeing crowd would have been made worse by the effect of gravity. Secondly, it seems from reports that the device went off towards the rear of the train, and the exit at Parsons Green is towards the front of the train. So when people evacuated, most would have probably surged towards this available exit at the end of the platform, meaning the crowd surge was denser than had there been more than one obvious way to evacuate (it seems that some people evacuated along the tracks, but much less than those that fled towards the exit at the end of the platform).

Emma Stevie
Tube train above ground at Parsons Green station

Previous work I have done with John Drury into mass emergencies, including 7/7 (see references below), found that people often behave much more resiliently than is expected of them, and I think yesterday's incident at Parsons Green was no exception. Yes, there were factors during the crowd evacuation that we need to consider if we are going to help ensure that future incidents are managed safely. However, I would argue that these are usually physical and/or logistical aspects of the space in which the evacuation happens (rather than any inherent problems with the way that those affected behave en masse), and using irrationalist terms such as 'panic' or 'stampede' do not help us advance our crowd safety management approaches. Finally, it is also worth bearing in the mind the general sense of community spirit, spontaneous acts of co-operation and generosity shown by others that happens after such incidents. For instance, a local resident in Parsons Green offered to put the kettle on for anyone affected, and a local Pizza company gave out free pizza and water to members of the emergency services on the scene (see photo). I think these are good examples of how adverse events can help bring communities together, and not divide them (as is often the intention behind the perpetrators), and we should remember this positive message in the aftermath of such incidents.

Pizzas and water being handed out
Stall set up by local Pizza company to support emergency services

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling,10 (2) p.219-36. DOI:10.1002/jip.1389Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Notting Hill Carnival & collective support

I was at the Notting Hill Carnival today, which was held this year in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in June 2017. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Notting Hill, this is not mere hyperbole, and from where I watched the carnival go by on Ladbroke Grove, the gutted Tower block was clearly visible to carnival goers. This made it a more sombre and reflective event than previous carnivals I have experienced (I grew up in West London & so have been a frequent visitor to the Carnival over the years), but from what I saw, the collective support offered by the local community and carnival goers shows how people can come together to support each other after such tragedies.

Locals had asked that visitors to the carnival didn't take photographs of the Tower and to respect people's privacy around the estate where Grenfell Tower is. Therefore, my focus in this post is on examples of collective support afterwards, rather than the tragedy itself & I have copied below some of my photos that I think are good examples of such collective support. In a previous post I looked at how the local community came together to support each other after the Shoreham air disaster in 2015, and how a nearby bridge became a focus of messages of support. A similar thing has happened in the area close to Grenfell Tower (I also noticed this on a previous visit to a local church in July), and a popular image of  Grenfell as a tube logo has also emerged,with people wearing T-shirts with this logo in solidarity at today's carnival.

Grenfell tube logo 

Messages of support on Ladbroke Grove 

I also noticed some interesting dynamics in the crowd behaviour at the carnival. For instance, the area closest to Grenfell Tower was designated as a quiet zone for reflection, and at 15.00 on both carnival days, there was a planned minute's silence. I did wonder beforehand how easy it would be to organise a minute's silence in such a large carnival crowd, but in the area where I was standing, word went around from about 14.50 onward that there was going to be a minute's silence. The crowd pretty much universally respected this & fell silent along with the emergency services personnel who were stationed there. The floats also fell silent when they passed the quite zone, and some had messages of support along the side The few people that didn't realize what was going on were told by others to be quiet & quickly did so. Once the minute was over, there was a spontaneous round of applause and yellow balloons were set off from local flats. This was quite a powerful experience to be part of and I felt this was a good example of the potential strength of unity that crowds can have in showing positive emotion & collective solidarity. This all fits with previous work I have done with John Drury on community resilience after disasters, where we found that people can come together and support each other much better than is often expected of them (see references below).

Quiet zone on Ladbroke Grove

Emergency services observing 1 minute silence

The Grenfell story is far from over and the survivors & victim's families will need ongoing material and emotional support in their fight for answers and justice (the Red Cross are taking donations & support for those affected can be accessed here). I also wouldn't want to make any claims that such a journey will be easy or without setbacks. However, I hope that the examples of collective and community support that I saw at the Notting Hill carnival today, could help form a vital part of the collective healing process that is so desperately needed in this area of West London.

Messages of solidarity on a float


Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. CABI: Oxford, UK.

Cocking, C (2016) ‘Collective Resilience and social support in the face of adversity- evidence from Social Psychology’ in Kumar, U (ed.) 'Routledge International Handbook of Psychosocial Resilience'. Routledge, Taylor & Francis: UK.

Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: a social identity model. In: Jetten, J., Haslam, C. and Haslam, S.A. (eds) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

London Bridge attack & crowd responses

Britain is waking up to the news that London has suffered another attack that has so far seen 7 people killed and nearly 50 hospitalized (a casualty hotline has been set up for those worried about loved ones- 0800 096 1233). Shortly after 22.00 on Saturday 3rd June, a van mounted the pavement on London Bridge, and began mowing down pedestrians. Then, three men got out and began attacking people with knives in the nearby Borough market on the Southern end of London Bridge until they were shot by armed Police. This was clearly a horrific attack, and my thoughts are with all those affected. I am familiar with the area, (it is a popular place for commuters to stop for a drink before travelling onwards from London Bridge railway station), and the thought of innocent bystanders being targeted at random while they were enjoying a Saturday night out, is particularly worrying. However, as horrific as this attack surely is, there is also evidence that shows how events such as these can see a co-operative spirit emerge.

Crowd flight?
This low-tech attack appears to be the third of its kind seen in London in recent years (the first being the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, and in March 2017 the Westminster Bridge attack), where a vehicle is used to attack pedestrians. While such incidents are truly terrifying for those affected, closer inspection of events usually shows that describing them as 'mass panic' rarely matches with the available evidence. So, for instance, footage of people leaving the scene last night shows an orderly evacuation, where they are evacuating with a degree of haste, but this is far from headlong flight (some people are not even running), and I can see no evidence of selfish behaviour (such as pushing others) or people falling over in the rush. This fits with crowd responses to the truck attack in Nice in July 2016, and with research that I have done (Cocking 2013a) into crowd flight.  

Bystander responses:
Reports are coming in of the speed and efficiency of the response by the emergency services, which by all accounts was amazingly quick. For instance, the London Ambulance Service reports that they were on the scene within 6 minutes, and deployed over 80 medics to help the injured. The attackers were also shot dead within 8 minutes of the start of the incident. However, as with such events, there is always a delay between the incident beginning and the emergency services deploying on the scene (no response can ever be instantaneous), and so in the minutes (or even seconds) before they arrive, we often see heroic acts by bystanders as well. So for instance, in an interview with an eye-witness, he describes his efforts to warn people what was happening and how he also intervened by throwing things at the attackers. I have also heard reports on Radio5 Live that people were directing Police to where the attackers were in Borough market, and an eye-witness talked about how people reacted; 'everyone seemed to adapt to it very quickly and respond to it as it happened'. On a broader level, in the aftermath of the attack, the hashtag  #sofaforLondon appeared on social media, as Londoners began offering a space to stay for anyone unable to get home after the attack. People are also using the Facebook safety check service to reassure others that they are OK.

I believe that all these examples illustrate well the concept of collective resilience, something that emerged from research I did with John Drury (see references below) into mass emergencies, whereby spontaneous co-operation quickly emerges among those affected, and the idea that people will be too shocked or 'panicked' to help each other just isn't backed up by what happens on the ground. So, bystanders in emergencies could actually be seen as a form of 'zero-responders' (Cocking 2013b) that could help strengthen the official response to such incidents. I hope that this can help show that a positive aspect of our shared humanity can emerge from such awful attacks, as people come together to help others in times of need.

Responders tend to the injured 


Cocking C. (2013a). Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36.

Cocking, C. (2013b). The role of "zero-responders" during 7/7: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services, 2 (2) 79-93.

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Manchester attack and crowd resilience

The city of Manchester and the whole of the UK are reeling in shock in the aftermath of the  murderous attack on the Manchester Arena after the Ariana Grande concert on 22/4/17, with 22 confirmed dead and 59 injured. As I write this, the UK terrorist threat level has been raised to its highest level, 'critical' (meaning another attack may be imminent), and soldiers have been ordered to support the Police on the streets to free up more armed officers. It is difficult to find the words to describe such a horrific attack that was clearly designed to be as shocking as possible and divide communities in its wake. I will show in this blog how I feel that such dark events can bring people closer together, both during the incident and in its aftermath. As is common with media coverage of such incidents, the words 'panic' and 'stampede' are freely used to describe the crowd response, suggesting that the people affected behave irrationally. However, work that myself and colleagues have done in this area has found that the reality is often more complex, with people behaving in ordered ways that are governed by the context in which they find themselves.

From what I have seen of crowd responses in the Manchester Arena, I think it is problematic to simply describe people's behaviour as a 'stampede' (something I have looked at in previous blogs on crowd flight).  It appears that as the concert was finishing, a lone suicide bomber walked into the foyer and detonated his device. The initial response to the blast appears to have been an eerie silence, then people began screaming once they realised what had happened, and then they fled rapidly from the venue. Mobile phone footage from inside the venue and the train station shows the crowd flight after the blast, and while you can see a degree of urgency amongst people leaving, there's no evidence of people behaving selfishly. Research I have done into crowd flight (Cocking, 2013) has shown that it is misleading to describe such incidents as a 'stampede' because it implies that people are behaving like animals with no consideration for their fellow human beings. Instead, people tend to help each other out when they are able, and I have not yet seen any footage of people behaving selfishly (eg pushing people or trampling over others). I'm mindful that it is possible that fear in a crowd composed largely of young people could be greater than in a crowd of adults (which is where I have done most of my research), but I have not yet seen any evidence that any such increased fear significantly increases incidences of selfish behaviour.

'Panic' is another word that is commonly used to describe such incidents, both by the media and in eye-witness accounts of the incident. Now, I'm not claiming that this incident was anything other than utterly horrific and terrifying for those involved, especially because there were many young people and children at the venue (and for some it was possibly their first gig). However, to describe such events as 'panic' doesn't fully explain the full complexity of what goes on, and like the term 'stampede' it implies that people are behaving irrationally and/or selfishly, when the evidence suggests otherwise. So, within the incident, I heard reports of people grabbing their relatives and running, forming human chains to help wheelchair users, and worried parents going against the crowd flow to enter the venue to find their children. There is also a moving interview on Channel 4 news where two parents describe how they looked after an injured child before they had found their own children. I would say that all of these examples are the opposite of 'panicked' behaviour, and instead show how people co-operate with each other (often to help complete strangers) in emergencies.  

Bystanders help the injured 

Collective Solidarity:
Much has been made of how people have come together in the aftermath of this tragedy, and I have heard journalists and politicians refer to the 'spirit of Manchester' and how such a tragedy will bring people together.  This fits with the the work I have done with John Drury that shows a sense of collective resilience can emerge from such incidents. So, for instance, I saw reports of people giving out water to victims, queuing up to donate blood, taxi drivers not charging for fares, people organizing lifts to get fans back to Liverpool, and one bystander leading 50 children to safety and arranging for a local hotel to put up those who couldn't get home. This collective solidarity also continued after the immediate attack, with a vigil in Manchester's Albert Square the day after the incident, and a planned rally by the far-right English Defence League (EDL) in the Arndale Centre was shouted down by Mancuniams. Now I accept that there could be a degree of political and media rhetoric here, (as a clear aim of such terrorist attacks is to divide communities), but the numerous examples of people spontaneously showing such collective solidarity, leads me to conclude that this is a real phenomenon above and beyond any journalistic hyperbole.

Mancunians show real Manchester spirit as they shout down EDL protesters
Mancunians confront the EDL

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling,10 (2) p.219-36. DOI:10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking C (2016) Brussels terror attack victims show how humans help each other in times of crisis. Published online in The Conversation, 22/3/16.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153;

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Monday, 29 August 2016

'Panic' at US airports?

There have been a couple of recent incidents at US airports that have created some interesting discussions about crowd behavior. Last night, (28/8/16) the passenger terminals at Los Angeles International Airport  (LAX) were evacuated  after reports that loud noises were misinterpreted as gun-shots. This follows a similar incident at New York's JFK airport two weeks previously, and both have generated detailed coverage in the US media, with reports of people 'stampeding' and mass 'panic' along with some lurid speculation about the inherent dangers of crowds. However, as is often the case with coverage of such incidents, I think what actually happened is a little more complicated than mere crowd 'irrationality'. In this post, I will quickly look at both incidents in turn, and then explain that while there could be possible implications for safe crowd management, adopting a default position that crowds will behave irrationally in such situations could obscure proper understanding of what went on, and more importantly, reduce the chances of any such future incidents being managed safely.

JFK & LAX evacuations
The first incident happened at JFK airport on 14/8/2016, and there is quite detailed coverage in the New York magazine suggesting that the following chain of events happened. It seems that an initial crowd surge began after applause in response to Usain Bolt's victory in the 100m Olympic final was falsely believed by some to be gunfire and one passenger reported seeing a gun. The resulting crowd movement caused some of the metal poles that are used to create queue lines to fall over (like the ones in the picture below), which created a clacking sound that some believed was gunfire, giving further credence to the rumours  already circulating that there were active shooters in the airport. There were also reports that the Police drew their weapons and ordered passengers to leave the terminal at gun point with their hands raised. Therefore, there seems to have been a cascading chain of events that added credibility to the rumors of shooters being present and resulted in heightened anxiety among those present and the consequent crowd flight that was seen.

Passengers on the ground in the immigration area of JFK airport, 15 August
People take cover at JFK

Moving now to the incident at LAX, similar scenes seem to have happened after loud noises were also misinterpreted as gunshots. Coverage of the story in the LA Times, states that after a person dressed as Zorro with a sword was detained by Police outside the passenger terminals (he was released after they realized it was a plastic sword), rumours circulated of an active shooter, which caused passengers to evacuate the terminal, with some leaving their baggage behind and/or opening emergency doors that led onto the tarmac where the planes were situated.  The following eye-witness account illustrates the anxiety that some of those affected appear to have experienced;

'Actress Anne Dudek of Santa Monica was one of the travelers who fled from Terminal 7 after her United Airlines flight arrived about 8:30 p.m. She said that she went down the escalator to baggage claim about 8:45 p.m and a man who appeared to be panicked ran by, warning everyone to run because he said people were being shot. "People started dropping bags and running out of the terminal," she said. "Panic spread." Dudek said she did not hear any shots, but decided to leave Terminal 7. She ran across the street, headed through the parking structure and made her way to the area near Southwest Airlines. She eventually reached her parked car and left the airport.'

'Panic' or logical flight behaviour? 
While the previous extract presents a rather chaotic picture, the accompanying video clip in the LA Times article is less dramatic and while people are either running or quickly walking out of terminal, it is all quite orderly, and not the actions that would normally be associated with a 'stampede'. I think this illustrates quite well how journalistic hyperbole (and sometimes even eye-witness accounts) of such incidents often slips easily into descriptions of 'panic'- something I have looked at in my own research of survivors' accounts of emergencies (Cocking & Drury, 2014). However, even if one accepts the premise that rapid flight occurred, there are a couple of things still worth considering.

First of all, research that I have done into crowd flight during emergency situations (Cocking, 2013) found that while such behaviour was often an instinctive reaction (e.g. people running as soon as they see a crowd surge towards them without waiting to find out the nature of the threat), socialized responses quickly over-ruled such instinctive reactions (such as helping people who had fallen over, re-grouping to deal with the threat etc). Therefore, I concluded that even in such extreme situations, describing sudden crowd flight as a 'stampede' didn't fit with detailed observations of what actually happened on the ground, and this has been supported by more recent blog-posts of other crowd emergencies.
Secondly, there is the issue that crowd behaviour is often pathologized by outside observers with the benefit of hindsight. So it's very easy to write off the behaviour of passengers at JFK and LAX as 'panic' after the event when we know there wasn't an active shooter at either incident and so there was no need to evacuate. However, if you are caught in a fast-moving situation without access to information, then hearing from others that there is a threat may appear credible, and so fleeing from this perceived threat may seem to be the most logical thing to do at the time if you don't have an overall view of what is going on. This may also be particularly relevant in the current context of heightened security at US airports post 9/11, (and the more recent mass shootings in Paris, Orlando, Dallas etc) meaning that people may be more alert to danger at JFK & LAX compared to other international airports. Therefore, providing crowds with reliable information in emergencies is vital, an issue that I will address in my final section.  

Provision of information in emergencies: 
The provision of information during emergencies is a contentious topic, and until relatively recently, emergency planning and response was often influenced by the assumption that crowds will 'panic' if made aware of a threat- thus justifying the idea that information should be withheld in emergencies. Some of the LA Times coverage of the LAX incident may appear to support this notion, such as this extract with the reporting an interview with the local mayor;
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the chaos that unfolded at the airport appeared to be a case of old-fashioned panic and miscommunication that spread quickly. "It's almost like a game of telephone, by the time people were hearing things, I think they heard it was an active shooter … that's when chaos can break out... It wasn't really the technology, it was just … one person yelling out to another and yelling to another.
However, I would still take issue with the notion of contagion of 'panic' after people have alerted others to a possible threat. This is because decades of work into crowd behavior reject the idea that crowds blindly follow any source of information, and not all rumours circulate without question in crowds. I would argue therefore that the solution to this problem is not to withhold information as a rule from crowds in emergencies. Research I did with John Drury into mass emergencies (Drury & Cocking, 2007) concluded that wherever possible, information should be provided about threats, as well as action that people could take to avoid and/or mitigate such threats and keep themselves safe, The crucial points to consider are the delivery of information and also the relationship that the crowd has with that source of information, so looking at ways to build trust between the public and official sources of information is vital to prevent circulation of false rumours. Technology is increasingly used to deliver such information, and while it will never be a complete panacea, it can help send out a consistent message to everyone with a mobile phone in the vicinity. So for instance, LAX has an Wireless Emergency Alert system that they used in this incident to send out a text message advising people that there wasn't an active shooter.

I would argue that we should take a more positive view of crowds than seems to have been adopted in coverage of the incidents at JFK & LAX. I'm not saying that we can't improve upon how such events are managed, but I would suggest that the possible problems that such incidents can generate do not rest within the inherent pathology of crowd behaviour and that emergency planners need to work with crowds more to ensure safe evacuations. Furthermore, the provision of consistent and credible information that crowd members can act upon is vital  as this will help foster a more collaborative relationship with crowds, and most involved in the field of crowd safety management now accept this is crucial in ensuring that such incidents are managed safely.

 Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling,10 (2) p.219-36. DOI:10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153;

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice.