Thursday, 24 November 2011

REF outputs should include blogs!

Those not acquainted with the delights of the Research Excellence Framework that calculates HE funding to Universities on the basis of published research may not find this too interesting, but I saw a blog written by someone at LSE, arguing that blogs should be allowed within the outputs submitted by research active staff.

Hear Hear & let's hope the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) take note and read this one!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Social Psychologists talk about August riots

Link below follows to probably the top crowd psychologist in the world (Professor Steve Reicher, from the University of St Andrews), talking about the August riots in England on Radio 4's All in the Mind programme.

Excellent stuff & well worth a listen!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Undercover Police snatch squads used on Nov 9th Demo!

The link below shows some rather worrying footage of how undercover Police were used at the recent student demo in London on Nov 9th, and were also involved in snatch squads to arrest protestors- the first time that I'm aware such a tactic has been used in public order situations by Police in the UK (apparently it happens a lot in Europe). This is rather alarming, as the use of undercover Police in public order situations can only increase distrust between  protestors and the Police, and can also lead to accusations by some that  undercover cops can act as agents provocateurs (although I'm a bit wary myself of buying too much into the agent provocateur theory, as it implies that people in crowds will always follow uncritically the actions of others!). It also seems to reflect the adoption by the Met of a much tougher approach to public order policing in the wake of last year's tuition fees protests, and the August riots.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Plastic bullets postcript

I'm typing this in the evening following the demo in London, and I'm pleased to see that they didn't use plastic bullets today, but a little jealous that the rally seemed to end up at the Moorgate campus of my old employer's, London Metropolitan University & I wasn't there!

However, did they really need 4000 Police Officers for a march that was estimated at between 2-4000 protestors?! This seems a response to political flak the Met recieved in the wake last year's tuition fee protests (and possibly the August riots), rather than any specific intelliegnce they had about expected numbers or what may happen today & is totally disproportionate to the numbers that turned out. How often do you get 1 Police officer per protestor?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

alarmist story by BBC about plastic bullets

The BBC has put out a rather sensationalist story about the the upcoming student demo in London on Nov 9th,  ( using the headline;

'London tuition fees protest: Rubber bullets 'available'

In it they state the Metropolitan Police are prepared to use rubber bullets (or baton rounds) in 'cases of "extreme" disorder' at tomorrow's demo, and then they interview a Green party member of the Greater London Assembly who is appalled and denounces such a plan. This seems to me a bit of a non-story. The Metropolitan Police (and other regional forces) have had officers who are trained in the use of baton rounds for at least the last 30 years, and it would seem likely that they always have such officers on stand by to use in emergencies if ever needed. It doesn't mean that they will be deployed specifically on tomorrow's demo, or that they are likely to be used.

Baton rounds have not so far being used on the Mainland UK in public order situations (they are used quite frequently in Northern Ireland though). As far as I am aware, the closest that the Police in England have come to using such weapons was during the 1985 Broadwater farm riot in Tottenham, London, when officers with baton rounds were deployed with orders to fire if necesary, because a Police officer (PC Keith Blakelock) had been killed during the disturbances. However, thankfully they did not end up opening fire, as the officers deployed did not consider it necessary.

Therefore, while I personally think that the chances of the Police using baton rounds tomorrow against unarmed student protestors are minimal to non-existent ( I sincerely hope I am not proved wrong!), I don't think stories like this are particularly helpful, as such rhetoric merely raises the stakes, decreases trust between the two sides, and makes collective disorder more, not less likely.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Beware of pop psychology!

A recent TV programme on the UK's Channel 4 by Derren Brown claimed to be doing an experiment that helps show why people become 'de-individuated' in riots and do bad things. Needless to say it's a load of pop psychology rubbish based on out-dated theories that are completely rejected by current crowd psychologists. I had hoped that Derren might know better, as he has previously cited work that we have done on crowd behaviour, but why let current scientific evidence get in the way of TV ratings!

Some colleagues have done an excellent response to this awful programme, which is available at;


Sunday, 30 October 2011

we don't need no education!

I saw in the news recently that Charlie Gilmour (Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd's adopted son) lost his appeal against his 16 month jail sentence for violent disorder during the tuition fee protests last year-

In it Lord Justice Hughes who rejected the appeal said: "It is an unavoidable feature of mass disorder that each individual act, whatever might be its character taken on its own, inflames and encourages others to behave similarly, and that the harm done to the public stems from the combined effect of what is done en masse"

On what scientifc basis is this statement founded?!

It seems to me that it might be useful if the legal system paid a bit more attention to current evidence on crowd behaviour, as  m'learned friend is quite simply wrong in his above claim that individual acts will inevitably incite others during mass disorder. If that was the case, why don't people listen to someone standing up and telling everyone to stop rioting and go home?! In the specific case of Charlie Gilmour, I've come accross evidence that while he was doing some pretty dumb things on the day (I understand he claimed in mitigation that he was off his head on mind-altering substances), far from inciting the crowd to act the same way, it seems that others did not join in (there's no footage of anyone else swinging off the cenotaph!), and some people even intervened and told him to stop being an idiot. The whole idea of crowds as a gullible mass that are easily incited into doing crazy things is a load of rubbish & it winds me up that people are allowed to peddle this myth without being challenged. Over 30 years' worth of research by crowd psychologists in the UK has found that by far the best way to incite crowds into mass disorder, is for the Police to use indiscriminate public order tactics (kettling, baton charges etc), and in the fall-out from the riots in August, the Police are now openly discussing using water cannon in mainland UK.

I am no apologist for the actions of Charlie Gilmour, but to say that he deserves 16 months in prison based on a fundamentally flawed assumption of how crowds behave seems a little disproportionate to say the least!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Al Jazeera interview about England riots

Just found an on-line link to an interview I did in August while the England riots were in full swing. Bit of an odd experience, as I was sitting alone in the Al Jazeera studio in Hyde Park Corner talking to someone in Doha that I couldn't see. This may explain why my gaze looks a bit shifty as I didn't know where to look. I think it went OK apart from me going on about 'spending cats', and moving a bit too much in my chair- maybe that's why they never paid me the $150 appearance fee they'd promised!

Friday, 9 September 2011

scientists' research misused

Just seen an excellent article in the Guardian written by scientists from Cardiff University complaining about how some research they did into impulsivity got mis-reported by the tabloid press as explaining why people got involved in the recent riots (something they never claimed). It's vital that the Press accurately report scientific findings, as otherwise public confidence in research could be fatally undermined if they are pilloried for things that they do not say

Web cam of seminar

I attended a  seminar this summer organised by The Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute at London Metropolitan University on 'Policing and protest in an age of austerity', with Sir Hugh Orde (head of ACPO), human rights lawyers, and activists on the panel. It was recently put on YouTube, and a link to it follows below.  I manage to get my tuppence worth in about 1 hr 23.45 into it, if you can't bear to watch the whole thing!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Riots not incited by Twitter shock!

Some rather interesting & welcome news from the Guardian today in a study of over 2.5million tweets put out during the recent riots. While there is some anecdotal evidence of people encouraging others to meet up and misbehave via Twitter, Blackberry & Facebook etc, the vast majority of social media traffic seems to have come from people trying to follow events as they were worried about what was going on, or trying to discourage others from rioting. Riots happened before we had mobile phones and so we should be careful not to overstate their significance in simplistic attempts to explain complex social processes!

Friday, 19 August 2011

guardian comment on recent riots

link below to an article written by Cliff Stott & Steve Reicher in the guardian comment pages on the recent riots- succinct & v good  critique of coverage and how a lot of it is based on flawed science

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

pseudoscience blog

Link follows below to an article written by Professor Steve Reicher who started off research in the UK into crowd behaviour when he was at Bristol University during the St Pauls' riots (part of a wave of inner city riots that swept the UK in the early 1980s). He argues that the recent riots have resulted in a lot of 'experts' being called up by journalists to talk about the psychology of rioting, but a lot of them don't have a background in the study of crowd behaviour, and instead rely on outdated or flawed concepts that are rejected by current researchers into crowd behaviour. Anyway, he says it all loads better than I could, so I recommend checking it out!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Rabble with a Cause: Were the London Riots a Spontaneous Mass Reaction or a Rational Response?

a very good article written by three of the top crowd psychologists I know and highly rate is available at the following link below.
I've also just seen that someone has just got 4 years for inciting a riot in Chester last week that never happened! Now I'm no legal expert, but I thought to be guilty of incitement, there had to be some evidence that you had incited people to do something?!

Friday, 12 August 2011

more coverage...

Some local news website has picked up on my press release. According to one of the comments I've seen, I'm a hand wringing liberal- never been called that before!

let's be rational here!

The media frenzy into the unrest continues. Question Time last night raised some interesting points, but often sensible debate was depressingly stifled by the 'string em up' brigade. People were coming out with emotive responses such as the rioters should not only have all benefits stopped, but also have all their private property confiscated and given out to victims of the riots! I'm no bleeding heart liberal, but if you confiscate all the posessions of a convicted looter, won't that encourage them to turn back to crime to get the material goods that our consumerist society is increasingly obsessed with? I'm no fan of David Davies (Tory MP & former shadow Home Secretary), but he did make a valid point in that laws rushed through in the heat of the moment (such as the new ones being suggested now) tend to be bad laws that we later regret in years to come.
My experiences with the media continue, and seem to be better than those of some of my colleagues. I understand that Cliff Stott (crowd psychology expert at Liverpool Uni) got a bit of a hard time on Radio 5 Live last night when he did a phone-in show on the riots. I turned down doing an interview on the James Whale show on LBC on Wednesday as I worried that his ranting/populist style would just become a shouting match and preclude any sensible debate. But I did agree to be on the Nick Ferrari breakfast show at 8.05 am today (12/8/2011), which went OK, although I did worry that my points were a little oblique to the angle that they seemed to want to take. Link to the show is on;​ari-3466/?CMP=KNC&cmpid=DJs+&+​Shows1-PPC

Thursday, 11 August 2011

ESRC report on riots

The Economic and Social Research Council has published details of research they've sponsored into crowds and disorder that are clearly relevant in the current context. I rate highly both Cliff Stott's and David Waddington's work, so would recommend checking them out if you want to know more about crowd disorder and public order policing from an informed (and not knee-jerk and/or hysterical) perspective!

Here's a link to Cliff Stott talking about the recent rioting on BBC Radio 4 Programme- the World Tonight on 9/8/2011. His bit starts about 15 min & 45 secs into it.

Press Release on recent UK disorder

The Press Dept at LondonMetropolitan University recently asked me to write something for a Press release that they put out about the recent riots across England. Below is the full version of the edited account that they put out;

30 years worth of research by psychologists into a variety of public order situations, ranging from the inner city riots to disorder England football fans, to the recent tuition fees protests, have found that riots always happen in a social context. If one does not consider this social context, then how such situations occur and develop can not be fully understood. Therefore, events such as the shooting of Mark Duggan by Police in Tottenham can certainly be seen as the trigger that sparked off the initial disturbances, but wider social problems (such as young people's sense of alienation from mainstream society, and the economic context of youth unemployment and public spending cuts) can also help explain the rapid spread of disorder to other disaffected communities nationwide.

Furthermore, descriptions of rioters as 'mindless thugs' and 'feral rats' are deeply emotive terms that are not supported by empirical research and can only cloud rational debate and further alienate the very people who need to re-connect with society if such disorder is to be prevented in future. To an outside observer, trashing and looting shops may seem like 'mindless' behaviours, but to young unemployed people, taking goods that they can not normally afford may seem like quite meaningful behaviour. Even apparently nihilistic behaviours such as trashing local charity shops may seem acceptable to those who feel no sense of connection with their local community. This is not in any way an attempt to excuse such behaviours (many of which were by definition, criminal acts), but definitions of 'rational' and 'irrational' behaviours are very much in the eye of the beholder.    

Demands by politicians and the public to give the Police greater powers and/or weaponry to deal with the disorder merely reflect a misunderstanding of the issues involved in public order policing. Such tactics don't tend to be popular with the Police and are most likely to be counter-productive. Use of distance weaponry (such as plastic bullets and water cannon) only tend to be effective in dispersing large static crowds, and would be largely ineffective against small groups of looters that tend to disperse anyway when the Police arrive. Evidence from Northern Ireland has also shown that such tactics usually escalate public order situations and make further confrontations likely. Furthermore, they would increase the disconnection between the Police and local community and take them further away from what they profess to be their preferred mode of policing- by consent not coercion. In the Independent today (11/8/2011) Sir Hugh Orde, who is tipped to become the next Commissioner of the Met, and has been Chief Constable of the PSNI (the only UK Police force with experience of using such tactics) has rejected the current clamour for such tactics to be used;

The disorder currently sweeping cities in England clearly presents a major problem that needs to be tackled. However, there also needs to be a sensible and neutral debate into its underlying causes. To call for such a debate does not mean one is seeking to excuse what happened. But to pursue a line that what has happened is pure criminality is a simplistic interpretation that prevents such a debate happening, meaning that such disorder could happen again if the root causes are not addressed. We all need to work together as a society to bring communities back together after the wounds inflicted by the recent disorder, and knee-jerk emotional reactions will only prevent such a process happening.

Friday, 17 June 2011

leader of Greek rioters exposed!

I have to admit that I may have been wrong in my previous assertions that crowds are not easily incited by charismatic leaders, as evidence has emerged from the recent disturbances in Greece to suggest that the protestors have a leader who has been seen at the forefront of the angry masses confronting the Police- see the link below for the proof.
My sources tell me his name is Fido (or some Greek equivalent) and he never misses a riot in Athens (if he's not busy gnawing a good bone)!

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

random bits of fame

A piece that the independent journalist Dan Howell did on violence in crowds with a brief interview with me is available via;
What's covered is reasonably Ok, but my bits were heavily edited down, meaning the message that I wanted to get across- (that when considering crowd violence, you have to consider the social context in which it occurs) didn't really get covered, but hey ho.

I was also at a little do at the House of Commons recently, with a group of researchers from LondonMet showing off their research to MPs, and the link below shows a picture of the occasion. It made me chuckle that I was there on the riverside terrace inside the HoC eating posh tit-bits talking about my research, when the last time I was hanging around there was when I was observing the tuition fees riot outside Parliament last December!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Proposed article for Morning Star

Below follows an article I wrote for the Morning Star that was supposed to appear after the TUC anti-cuts demo in March, but I don't think it ever did, so it's copied here for posterity! 

Collective disorder- a psychological perspective
In the recriminations following violence on demonstrations (such as the recent TUC anti-cuts protest in London), the Police are often criticised in the right-wing Press for being too ‘soft’ and debates are often had about drafting new laws or giving the Police new weapons to deal with future protests. However, the problem is not a lack of resources, more a case of the Police using their public order tactics more sensibly in order to prevent mass disorder. Indeed, it could be argued that the more measured public order tactics they used on March 26th (the lack of mounted charges or mass containment- ‘kettling’) probably prevented comparatively isolated militant protests spreading into mass disorder, such as was seen during the 1990 Poll Tax riot. However, while such tactics were slightly more sophisticated than those seen at the tuition fees protests last year, this was probably in response to greater public scrutiny of their previous excesses, and there are still deep ideological perspectives underpinning public order policing strategy, that rely on fundamentally flawed views of crowds that risk making disorder more, rather than less likely at large scale protests. Furthermore, while attitudes amongst some senior officers are beginning to change, the view that the Police as an institution tend to have of crowds draws upon ‘classic’ theories that are not only outdated, but also largely rejected by current academic research into crowd behaviour.
‘Classic’ crowd behaviour theories:
Early approaches to crowd behaviour were led by the work of Gustave Le Bon, a French aristocrat living in Paris at the time of the 1870-1 Commune. His observations of the libertarian crowds he saw are almost all uniformly negative, and he believed that just being in a crowd resulted in a loss of one’s ‘normal’ sensibilities;
“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian”
He also believed crowd members were inherently suggestible, and so easy to incite into disorder by agitators because of their gullibility. Finally, he suggested the concept of ‘contagion’ to describe how individual anti-social behaviour can spread quickly throughout the whole crowd, as people are sucked into a collective ‘mob mentality’. Therefore, crowds were an inherent threat to the status quo, and should be treated as such, as they were prone to violent and/or irrational behaviour. In response to this threat, the authorities had little choice but to prepare for the worst ravages of a crowd, and ensure that they had sufficient resources to defend the status quo from such potential collective outbursts. Le Bon’s theories are still influential today, and media coverage of violent protests is usually peppered with irrationalist descriptions of crowds, such as:  ‘anarchist thugs’, ‘violent extremists hijacking protests’ etc.

An alternative approach:
Social Psychologists who study crowd behaviour are critical of Le Bon’s approach because it is not supported by empirical evidence, and also deeply biased as his status and position would have been threatened by the crowds he observed. They argue instead for a more normative approach to crowd behaviour, such as the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM). Numerous studies of inner-city riots and protest marches since the 1980s have found that crowd members behave in ordered ways that are governed by the social norms of the situation and the collective identity of protestors. While involvement in protests may involve a shift from a personal to a more collective identity, this does not mean that one loses one’s sense of personal identity altogether, and behaviour that conflicts with one’s own personal values is unlikely. Therefore, even in the fiercest of riots, crowd members can and do regulate their own behaviour and are often selective in their choice of targets to attack. For instance, in the 1990 Poll Tax riot, while there was looting of some shops, these tended to be banks and car show-rooms, and smaller shops that were less associated with wealth (such as local newsagents) tended to be left alone by the crowd, and some even remained open, selling produce to rioters. More recently, when students occupied Millbank Towers last November, and a fire-extinguisher was thrown from the roof, the crowd’s response was booing, followed by chants of ‘stop throwing shit!’
The reason that mass disorder occurs (as opposed to the isolated pockets of property damage and the largely peaceful occupation of Fortnum & Masons seen on March 26th) is often because Police Public order tactics are influenced by a LeBonian perspective of crowds, which sees them as an actual or potential threat to public order, and so leads them to plan their tactics accordingly. Unfortunately, this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is because protest crowds are usually comprised (at least initially) of diverse groups and individuals with differing views of what is legitimate behaviour, ranging from peaceful to more militant tactics. However, the Police tend to see crowds as a homogenous mass, and if commanders fear mass disorder, they often employ indiscriminate public order tactics such as containment (kettling), or dispersal (charges by mounted or foot Police) that treat the crowd in a uniform way. Such tactics often have the effect of psychologically uniting the crowd, meaning that previously isolated pockets of violent behaviour become more widespread, as violence becomes seen as more acceptable to crowd members. As the Police experience more militant behaviour from the crowd, it confirms their view that the crowd is a threat, which propels both groups’ behaviour into a cycle of escalation that is often difficult to break. Ironically, the belief that a violent minority of ‘trouble-makers’ can incite a peaceful majority into violence may also result in the very disorder that the Police seek to prevent, because if they act against the crowd as a whole in order to deal with a ‘violent minority’, this can result in others getting caught in the way and changing to consider more militant tactics as not only legitimate, but perhaps also necessary in the face of what they may consider to be an illegitimate attack against them.

The current climate of public spending cuts, (which will affect the Police as well) means that mass protests are more likely over the coming months and years. However, current crowd psychology models do not consider violence at such events is inevitable, as the vast majority of protest crowds are peaceful. It is certainly possible that individuals may turn up to protests with violent intent, but the idea that they on their own can incite the ‘unwilling’ masses into violence in the absence of wider factors is a myth. The use by the Police of indiscriminate public order tactics is a far better predictor of disorder than people in balaclavas trashing a few windows on Piccadilly. However, the way crowds in the UK have been viewed and treated by the state over the last 200 years suggests that a fundamental shift in how they are managed is necessary if the risk of widespread disorder is to be reduced significantly.

By Dr Chris Cocking, London Metropolitan University,

Friday, 15 April 2011

landmark judgement against kettling

The Guardian covers the High Court Ruling that criticises the Metropolitan Police for using their tactic of 'kettling' against the climate camp protestors in Bishopsgate, London during the G20 protests in 2009. The article and full judgement follow below. What I find rather ironic is that Police seem to have accepted that the climate camp was peaceful, but they used their kettling tactic against it to prevent other violent protestors from elsewhere 'hijacking' it. So they ended up using violent tactics (eg using their shields as weapons) against an almost entirely peaceful crowd for fear that they may be incited by others into violence! To me, this illustrates yet again a deeply irrationalist view of crowds, and an apparent lack of ability to consider the possibility that non-violent protestors might not be incited into violence just because others favouring more militant tactics may appear among them. However, I would say that that the Police advancing into them and kettling them in quite a violent way (while a lot were holding their hands in the air shouting 'this is not a riot') might be a much better way of inciting them into violence! 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

I'm doing a talk at the London Met teach in 7th May

Students and staff from London Met are having a teach-in on may 7th at the Holloway Rd campus to protest against the cuts in HE & tripling of tuition fees, but also to highlight the positive things that HE teaching can offer if it's not considered in terms of profit. Check out the link below and download a flyer if interested- apparently I'm talking about my research into protests/collective action as well

Saturday, 2 April 2011

any questions rant 2/4/2011

Just listening to Any questions on BBC radio 4 and the panel's coverage of the anti-cuts demo, and how they all tunred on a New Statesman Journalist who was present inspired me to send them the following comment;

Listening to Laurie Penny get criticised by others on the panel (who were not there) for her description of what happened on the anti-cuts demo reminds me of the age old myths about crowds that keep getting churned out after each protest, despite there being no evidence to support them. The idea that those with violent intent can appear at a demonstration and incite others into a riot in the absence of other contextual factors, or that those engaged in property damage will automatically descend into violence towards individuals is utter nonsense and merely shows an ignorance of crowd processes. Studies of crowds over the past 30 years have found that by far the biggest predictor of mass crowd disorder is how the crowd is managed by the Police. Indiscriminate public order tactics such as kettling and mounted charges tend to have the effect of psychologically uniting previously disparate elements of a crowd together against the Police.
The belief that crowd members will uncritically follow a violent minority and get sucked into a mass mob mentality is rubbish and only reflects deeply pathological and distrustful views of crowds that may be common in popular discourse, but is not supported by numerous studies of crowd behaviour 

Friday, 1 April 2011

Morning Star spoiler article!

I was approached by the Morning Star a couple of weeks ago to write about crowds and the recent anti-cuts protests, so I dutifully agreed. However, in the meantime, a piece about me and my research (that had previosuly appeared in the Camden New Journal) has been published as well. So the link for that is below & it means I've probably got to re-write the article I was doing- dunno if it will appear as well yet.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Police have 'new' containment tactic!

An article in the Evening Standard today (22nd March) reports Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens (in charge of Public Order policing at the Met) as saying that the Met have a new containment tactic that 'has not been trialled yet' because the last 2 demos where it was in place were peaceful, but they may use it if there's trouble on the TUC demo this sat 26th March. Now I currently have no idea what this new tactic might be (maybe a 'super kettle with bells on'?!), but articles like this are not particularly encouraging as they just emphasise the classic ideological position the authorities have to protests and show to me that the Police are gearing up for trouble. I worry that providing briefings like this beforehand risk any disorder becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, but we'll see what happens this saturday. Link to story follows below;

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Panic buying of iodine in response to Japanese nuclear crisis

The following article on Channel 4 News web-site illustrates the concept of panic-buying, which I have referred to in earlier blogs.

There was also Colin Blakemore from the Medical Research Council (MRC) on the programme talking about this concept. He spoke about how while it may not be medically necessary to take iodine if one is not in the immediate vicinity of a radiation leak, it is not necessarily irrational if one considers it in the context that there is a widespread lack of public trust in the nuclear industry. Therefore, people may not always believe messages that are put out that downplay the threat of radiation contamination (even if they're true!). This is clearly a problem, but I would argue one of the public not having any trust in the nuclear industry (and perhaps also government), rather than people displaying irrational behaviour. If I thought I was at risk of nuclear contamination, then I would go straight out and get some iodine for me and my family. Thankfully, because I am based in the UK I don't feel the need to do so at the moment (but maybe I'll eat  more seaweed for a while!)   

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Japan- fragile or resilient?

I've been trawling through some of the footage of the tsunami that has just hit Japan, and found a rather interesting but also strangely idiosyncratic article by Hugh Levinson from the BBC;

'Japan: A fragile country at the mercy of nature'-

Given the title, one would perhaps expect the story to focus on the fragility of Japan. However, while the word 'panic' is mentioned once, it is used to describe the journalist's own internal feelings, rather than any mass panic of those affected. He also mentions the term resilience in the following way;

"The city of Tokyo has shown extraordinary resilience. In March 1945, a couple of decades after the great earthquake, American B29s dropped incendiary bombs on the city of wooden houses. The resulting firestorm killed 100,000 people in the course of a single night. Waiting for the "big one" is a part of Japanese life".

Therefore, this begs the question of why does the title focus on fragility, while the body of the article focuses on resilience? It seems here that even when the coverage of emergencies rightly points out the incredible resilience that people can show in response to disasters, it is all too easy to slip back into the pervasive myth of vulnerability, even when the material presented suggests the opposite!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Some thoughts on the closing statements of the 7/7 Inquests

As the 7/7 inquests come to a close, the BBC have published an article on-line about the people who helped others after the 4 explosions on London’s transport system on July 7th 2005; 'London bombings: unsung heroes of 7 July';
There are some moving stories about the bravery of people who often risked their lives to help their fellow passengers (who were mostly complete strangers) in scenes of horrific devastation after the suicide bombers detonated their devices. However, I worry that the tone of the article risks supporting the usual misperception that co-operation and altruism is the exception rather than the rule in mass emergencies. Furthermore, reports like this imply that were it not for a few isolated individuals holding everyone together, then mass panic would undoubtedly ensue- something that almost never happens in disasters.

The article mentions the bystander effect (a psychological process whereby people can be reluctant to help others, because they don't want to get involved, or feel a sense of diffusion of responsibility in a crowd) to explain why people can ignore others in need.  However, while there is a lot of experimental evidence to show that bystander apathy can be recreated in the laboratory, studies of behaviour in real-life emergencies is much less conclusive.  Much work has been done by colleagues of mine into the bystander effect, such as Mark Levine ( who disputes simplistic interpretations of the bystander effect. He argues that we should instead focus on the situations in which we intervene to help others, and has produced a large body of evidence to show that if we feel a sense of shared identity and hence empathy with others, then co-operation is much more likely. Therefore, rather than bemoaning ‘human nature’ as inherently selfish, perhaps we should look instead at how we can encourage people to help others in need.

The work that I did with colleagues into crowd behaviour in mass emergencies ( did focus a lot on survivors’ accounts of 7/7, and we found that altruism was the norm and not the exception. We argued that this was because the emergency created a sense of shared fate amongst the survivors, which encouraged co-operative and not selfish behaviour. This is not to say that we don’t recognize that there were some incredibly heroic people who helped others in the aftermath of the explosions (I felt privileged to have met a few during my research in this area, and was moved and inspired by their accounts). However, the general mood of the situation (relative calm and/or shock amongst survivors rather than mass hysteria) meant that those brave individuals were able to step forward and encourage general co-operation through their actions. This was because they were seen as representative of this calm norm and so were effective in helping others and encouraging general co-operation amongst survivors. Had there been an atmosphere of mass panic amongst survivors, I doubt that such brave actions would have been so influential amongst others. Therefore, I would argue that when general co-operation occurs in mass emergencies (and when it is physically possible to do so, it generally happens), it is not in spite of the crowd, it is because of it. Therefore, emergency management strategies should take this into account, as survivors may be able to provide vital help in the time before the emergency services reach survivors in the aftermath of future emergencies.  

Sunday, 27 February 2011

When does panic happen?

A question I often get asked is along the lines of, 'in what situations will panic happen, because surely it happens sometimes, if people are faced by extreme danger & know they're going to die etc?'

This is a tricky one to answer sometimes, and we have to accept that there may be some gaps in the evidence that we look at, especially in emergencies where there are mass fatalities. This is because those most affected by disasters are by definition those killed in them, so it's rather difficult getting accounts from them (unless you have access to a reliable medium!). However, the data that has been collected from such emergencies suggests that even in situations of extreme and/or fatal threats, social norms and organisation tend to remain and rarely break down. There is even some evidence to suggest that when people are in a situation where they expect to die and there is no prospect of escape, they tend to become apathetic and resigned to their fate, rather than descending into hysterical panic.
Nevertheless, there are at least 2 situations I can think of that could perhaps be described as a form of panic, which I will now describe (but they still do not fit stereotypical views of 'mass panic'): 'elite panic' & 'panic buying'.

Elite Panic:
This concept was first suggested Lee Clarke in 2008 and explored by Rebecca Solnit in her excellent 2009 book, 'A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disasters', published by Viking. She argues quite compellingly that communities respond much better in disasters than they are often given credit for, but that those in authority tend to fear the breakdown of law and order in such situations, and often impose over-protective and sometimes draconian emergency response measures that could be considered as 'elite panic'. Citing a variety of different emergencies, she argues that mass mutual aid quickly emerges amongst those affected, but this is often sabaotaged by the authorities who fear the breakdown of social structures and existing hierarchical power structures in their aftermath. She presents shocking evidence of how after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the forces of law and order and armed vigilantes were often shooting survivors on sight, believing them to be looters. So, in these situations, it seems to be those in authority that panic, rather than those most directly affected.

Panic Buying:
The problems of panic buying were aptly demonstrated in the 2000 fuel crisis in the UK, where protests by those transporting fuel supplies from oil refineries to petrol stations almost brought the country to a stand-still, as pumps ran dry, and some foodstuffs (bread, milk etc) ran out, as people rushed out to fill up their cars' petrol tanks and stock up their cupboards in the fear that supplies would run out. The irony of the situation, was that it wasn't the protests that caused the pumps to run dry. What caused the shortages was that the UK and many other developed economies operate on a 'just in time' basis to save on storage costs, and the distribution systems are not designed to cope with everyone filling up their tanks at the same time (as this almost never happens, and so it would waste resources having stocks to cope with this once in a generation eventuality). Therefore, when the media reported that 'panic-buying' was going on, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people rushed out to fill up their tanks and cupboards before stocks ran out, thus creating the very shortages that had not exsited before it was reported. What may seem to an outsider as irrational 'panic-buying', may seem like a very sensible thing to do to each individual, as they may fear that if they don't stock up, they risk going without. This is a very good example of a social dilemma, in that what is in an individual's own interest may not be good for the collective. This is an area where more responsible reporting by the media could play a part, because reporting that 'panic-buying' is occurring can encourage people to act in their own short-term interest. Thefore, perhaps instead of reporting outbreaks of 'panic-buying' the media should instead report that stocks  will remain sufficient just so long as people don't try to hoard as much as they can in the misplaced fear that there will be shortgaes

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cairo protests

The situation in Egypt is currently rather confused & fluid. The BBC are reporting this morning (3rd Feb) that a retired Egyptian general with close links to the army is claiming that the army are ready to move against Mubarak if the violence from his supporters continues. However, BBC footage I've seen of the initial attack on anti-Mubarak protestors is quite interesting (link follows below). You can see how when pro-Mubarak supporters ride into the crowd on horse-back (and some on camels!) at Tahiri square, people do initially scatter, but then quickly re-group and surround the horses, and turn on them, with reports of them pulling the riders off. This results in the violent conflict in the square yesterday which saw at least 3 deaths and up to 1500 injuries and by all accouints the pro-Mubarak supporters were repulsed from the square.
I would say, that yet again, this is a very good example of how what may initially be presented as 'panic' (eg scatterring in the face of attacks), could instead be seen in terms of an ordered response to a credible threat, which is limited and governed by the social context in which crowd members find themselves   

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Me on the World Service 31/1/2011

I was recently interviewed on the BBC World Service Health Check programme about crowds and the current situation in Egypt & Tunisia. It was broadcast on 31st Jan, and is available on the iPlayer via the following link. My bit starts about 30 seconds into it and lasts for about 7 1/2 mins.

or alternatively;

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Bedfordshire Police away days?

Just a quick addendum to the last post about the student protest march on sat 29th Jan;

I remember walking past Parliament on Saturday with the crowd and seeing a female Superintendent from Bedfordshire Police standing in line with the other officers from the Met, and thinking to myself why on earth is a senior officer from a provincial force here? Having just watched Newsnight and seen that the English Defence League are planning a 'home-coming' demo in Luton this sat 5th Feb, and it is reported that up to 12,000 protestors are expected, I can see why Bedfordshire Police may have wanted to send officers to London to observe the Met's Public Order policing. How the demo is policed, and what other forces are there could be interesting to see.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

some quick thoughts on today's demo in London (29/1/2011)

The protest march against tuition fees & spending cuts held today (Sat 29th Jan) in London passed off peacefully without any major incidents that I am aware of. I was interviewed earlier in the week in Parliament square by an independent media company, and one of the questions I was asked was whether I thought there would be disorder on today's demo. My answer at the time (which I worried may have come accross as me sitting on the fence) was that it depended entirely on how the event was policed. I feel that the lack of collective disorder today has supported that view, because the Police tactics today were noticeably different from those employed at the previous 3 anti-fees demos held last November-December.

There was much less of a visible Police presence accompanying the march, and while there clearly were still a lot of officers deployed, they stayed much more in the background, protecting strategic targets, and not deployed in protective riot gear. Indeed, the only protective gear I saw all day, was where some officers who were deployed in front of Parliament had riot helmets attached to their belts but were not wearing them. There were a few places where they set up defensive lines (such as in front of Millbank & the Egyptian embassy), but I saw no attempts by protestors to force their way past. Generally speaking I feel that the demo was a very well-natured one, and this was facilitated by what appeared to be a more sensible approach to managing the crowd by the Police.

I think all this shows that collective disorder when groups of people come together to protest is not inevitable, and crowd management strategies that start off from the premise that there is a likelihood of disorder, risk becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. Furthermore, the idea that if disorder occurs, it is because a protest has been 'hijacked' by naughty extremists, is a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence. On today's demo there was a diverse range of protestors including those that some in the media like to label as 'extremists', but their presence did not incite others into disorder, and more importantly why should it? This argument only seems to make sense if one accepts the notion that crowd members are inherently gullible and uncritical of what goes on around them, and if others start behaving in more militant ways, then they will do so as well. However, this is again a complete fantasy that is not supported by evidence and only serves to perpetuate the idelogical and reactionary views of crowds that are held by many. Hopefully, greater examination of events like today and comparisons with situations where there has been collective disorder will help counter such views    

Monday, 24 January 2011

Moscow airport bombing Jan 24th 2011

As I am typing this, news is still coming in about the Moscow airport bombing which was clearly a horrific experience for those unfortunate enough to have been caught up in it. However, the following extract below illustrates what I feel to be another example of how coverage of these tragedies all too often slips into uncritical usage of outdated terms such as 'panic', even when faced with conflicting information. Here the BBC coverage uses the term with all its selfish assumptions, but in the very same same sentence then describes how a British survivor helps others around him. I would argue that this is not the actions of a panicked individual and supports our research into emergencies that found co-operative altruistic (rather than selfish)  behaviour to be the norm in such situations.

'He described scenes of panic and how he gave a drink of water to a bloodied Russian man whose face was blackened with soot'

Some thoughts on the Hungarian night-club tragedy Jan 2011

As news of a tragedy in a Hungarian night-club filter through, media reports seem to use uncritically descriptions of words such as 'panic', and 'stampede'. I think that such words should not be used to describe behaviour in emergencies, as they are inadequate to describe what actually happens in such situations. In the research that I and countless others have done in this field, panic is usually noticeable by its absence- eg that the classic notions of 'panic' (mass hysteria, breakdown of social norms, selfish behaviour- pushing trampling etc) are rarely (if ever) found, and when people are physically able to co-operate, they do so. If physical pressure is so great that people cannot help each other, then vocal manifestations of 'panic' may occur (screaming, crying etc), but this does not mean that general 'mass panic' occurs. Indeed, when people are trampled, it is usually because someone falls over in a crush, there is a domino effect, and others are physically unable to help them up, and end up falling on them as well.  
Moreover, using definitions such as 'stampede' also has deeply ideological and animalistic premises that merely reflect a broader mistrust of the crowd in society and social discourse, and doesn't add to a greater understanding of behaviour in emergencies. Indeed, I would argue that the often pervasive assumption that information about threats should be withheld from crowds during emergencies (for fear of creating 'mass panic') is not evidence-based, and may increase the danger to those affected, as it may mean that people delay their own evacuation from safety while they wait for more information about the situation. 

A Busman's holiday in Tunisia!

I recently went on holiday to Tunisia, where I found myself caught up in a revolution, which was quite fortuitous for me, considering my research interests involve the study of crowd behaviour. Below follows an e-mail I sent to the BBC about my experiences of being there and being interviewed by the media while I was out there

further to the conversation we had while I was in the Tunisian resort of Sousse last friday, I would like to add some thoughts about how I think the recent situation in Tunisia was covered by the British media, and how the opportunity to present a potentially new and interesting angle to the story was sadly missed. I felt that the coverage in general tended to be over-sensationalised and bordered on being alarmist at times, which not only presented a partial picture of the situation, but could also have contributed to unnecessarily raising anxiety levels of both those in Tunisia, and their loved ones back home who saw the coverage.

While I found the worst culprits were as usual amongst the tabloid press, there were times when I felt that even the BBC could have been a little more even-handed in its coverage of the situation. For instance, one of the interviews I did was for Radio 5 Live, where I was interviewed right after a holidaymaker in Hammammet who had barricaded himself into his hotel room with his wife and 3 young children. My attempts to portray the picture as a little more nuanced, and that I didn't think tourists would be targeted in the disorder didn't seem to be given that much attention by the journalist I spoke to, and the interview seemed to be cut short.

Therefore, I worry that the inference of pervasive fear & distress amongst holiday-makers in Tunisia was considered a better story than that it was actually quite safe for the vast majority of holiday-makers, as it didn't seem to be in anyone's interests for tourists to be harmed. While it was clearly a distressing experience for the specific family concerned, I met them on the plane out the next day, and we were all laughing and joking about our experiences. They certainly did not strike me as deeply traumatized by their experiences, but I worry that is not how the situation will be remembered, as it is less newsworthy than the mental image of tourists being barricaded in one's hotel while the resort 'burns'.

Moreover, while there was probably also a lot of fear amongst holiday makers about what was happening, and a desire to get home, I would argue that much of the distress would have been based more on their worries of what might happen, rather than what actually did happen. The footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, clearly shows they were selective in the targets they attacked (such as properties belonging to the family of the President, Ben Ali). Indeed, when my partner and I were caught up in a riot, we found that not only were crowd members not threatening towards us, many were coming up to us, telling us that we were safe, and why they were targeting certain buildings & not others, their view of the president etc. The only time we felt concerned for our safety was when the Police arrived, and there was a general fear that they would open fire on the crowd, as they had already done elsewhere. The only footage I have seen where foreigners were deliberately targeted, was when a car-load of Swedes on a hunting trip were stopped and attacked when the crowd found they had guns on them, believing they were foreign mercenaries. Clearly that was a wrong judgment on the part of the crowd, but given the fluid nature of the situation in Tunis at the time, it is perhaps not that surprising that they came to this conclusion when they found the guns.

I worry therefore, that there is a danger that the media has pursued an angle on this story (e.g. terrified British holidaymakers caught up in the middle of a revolution etc) that buys too much into outdated views- not only of how crowds behave, but also how people are far more resilient in the face of adversity than they are often given credit for. This reflects a deeply pathological view of crowds that is rather pervasive in social discourse, but not supported by the evidence that a wide range of academic studies into crowds over the last 50 years have found.

Please contact me if you require further information on this topic. I attach fyi a booklet I produced with a colleague on a project we did into mass emergency behaviour, and a link follows below to academic papers we have published on this topic.

best wishes,

Dr Chris Cocking
Dept of Psychology
London Metropolitan University

You-tube links of footage I took of rioting crowds in Monastir, Tunisia

He's not the President- he's a v naughty boy! parts 1&2
Footage of protests in Monastir, Tunisia 13th Jan 2011, taken from the Ribat castle, where 'Monty Python's the Life of Brian' was filmed. You can see that while the crowd comprehensively destroy a cafe that belonged to the extended business empire of the Ben Ali family, they are selective in their attacks & no other properties in the vicinity are targeted