Saturday 1 January 2022

Review of 2021


What a year 2021 was! When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in early 2020, I remember joking that I might have to change my choice of career, as there was little chance of being able to research crowds and group behaviour while we were in the various lockdowns that were imposed. How wrong I was, as myself & other social psychologists have never been busier trying to understand and predict public behaviour in response to the pandemic. In this blog, I will look at how I engaged with the media and wider public discourse in 2021, to try and help promote the public health behaviours that were necessary to prevent transmission of COVID-19.


Shared identities & collective behaviour:

Throughout the pandemic, myself and other behavioural scientists have been saying that to encourage greater compliance with any necessary public health behaviours (such as mask-wearing, social distancing, isolation etc) then it's vital during a global public health emergency to encourage a greater sense of shared responsibility via more collective identities- a concept also known as 'we-speak'. Along with previous research that myself and others have done into mass emergencies, having a shared sense of adversity ('we're all in this together') can encourage more co-operative and less selfish behaviour. However, as I discussed in my blog from May 2020 (shortly after it emerged that top UK govt advisor Dominic Cummings had driven over 300 miles to Durham while infectious with COVID-19), if the public feel that those in authority are not following their own guidelines, then this can create a sense that 'it's one rule for them & another for us' and erode public compliance with such guidelines. The importance of maintaining such a sense of shared adversity was a theme I frequently mentioned in the media interviews I was asked to do during 2021  


Freedom day:

In July 2021 the media and politicians triumphantly claimed that life would return to normal as legal restrictions on behaviour were removed despite the level of new infections still remaining high. The high level of ongoing cases meant that the original proposed date for 'Freedom Day' was delayed, and in my media interviews on this topic, I highlighted that such delays risk creating possible public confusion, and that Freedom Day ended up becoming ‘be more cautious day’. Removing restrictions also suggested that adherence to COVID restrictions (mask wearing) was now a matter of personal choice and risked further undermining the public collective spirit and even risked creating division/conflicts in society between those choosing to still adhere to COVID behavioural restrictions and those that decided not to. For more details see the article that John Drury and other psychologists wrote about the psychology of Freedom DayOn a personal level, I also took advantage of the raising of restrictions to go to my first gig in 18 months which was Idles at the Eden project in September, and my thoughts about it are included in the The Psychologist


Stockpiling behaviour is a phenomenon that has happened on different occasions during the pandemic, and, I looked at reports of 'panic-buying' in my blog before the 1st national lockdown in March of last year. I was also interviewed during the fuel crisis in September that was precipitated by a shortage of HGV drivers post Brexit. Along with others, I have repeatedly said that politicians and the media should not use the term 'panic-buying' when covering stories about shortage of goods, as it casts people psychologically in competition with each other and can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this advice often falls on deaf ears (not least because coverage of people queuing at petrol stations is considered more newsworthy) and I had to make the point in my frequent media appearances on this topic that the media and politicians are often to blame in exacerbating these situations. My favourite one on this topic was probably a live interview for Sky News where the interviewer got a little defensive when I said the media had to take some responsibility for the situation and someone also tweeted a photo of their cat mooning at me while I was being interviewed! (see picture below). For more on recent research into panic buying, see this pre-print of a paper that I contributed towards.


Feline commentary on my Sky News interview


Political Leadership (or not?)

A constant problem that myself and others have raised this year is the woeful lack of leadership we have seen by the UK government in its COVID response. John Drury’s latest blog looks at different possible styles of COVID leadership (identity, coercive & laissez-faire), concluding that identity leadership is the best approach to follow. However, all too often during the pandemic, we have seen coercive and/or laissez-faire leadership whereby the authorities don’t engage with the public and/or abdicate leadership completely by sending out the message that it’s down to individual choice whether people comply with public health behaviours recommended to prevent COVID transmission.  

This lack of effective leadership was illustrated in politicians’ mixed messages with regards to policies on mask-wearing and in October, I tweeted that making masks mandatory for everyone in the House of Commons except for MPs, could reduce the sense of shared adversity that is so vital in encouraging collective action by the general public to prevent transmission spread. Furthermore, statements from the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg that Tory MPs didn't need to wear masks because they 'knew each other' could further erode such shared identities (as well as directly contradicting current scientific advice that transmission risk was greater with people you knew). For more detail on the Psychology of mask-wearing, see this article that appeared in the Guardian at the end of October 



Throughout my media appearances in 2021, I have constantly tried to get the message across that the public are not the weakest link in emergencies and/or pandemics, but are often wrongly treated as such by authorities, which can create problems and self-fulfilling prophesies. I would suggest that this reflects a broader distrust of public behaviour and we need a more engaging and facilitative approach to emergency management and not the coercive and/or laissez faire leadership approaches currently used by the UK government. Finally, I was asked by Sky News for my predictions for 2022 relating to COVID-19 and public behaviour- we shall see how many of my predictions are supported in 2022



British Psychological Society COVID resources

Independent Sage briefings on COVID-19 13.30 each Friday

Public Health England COVID-19 pages

Sage Pandemic Influenza Behavioural group (SPI-B)

University of Sussex Groups & COVID research


Monday 25 May 2020

COVID-19 lockdown- 'All in it together'?

The news that Boris Johnson's aide Dominic Cummings broke lockdown restrictions to drive 260 miles from London to Durham when he and his wife had possible COVID symptoms has created a media storm that is voicing fears that public adherence to the lockdown could unravel. Boris Johnson's insistence on backing Cummings' breach of regulations while millions of others were respecting them (often at great hardship to themselves and their families) has created a significant backlash that has united Tory MPs, religious leaders and both the right-wing and left-wing media. Furthermore, the response to this scandal suggests that the advice given to the government by behavioural experts on how to communicate with the public during major emergencies seems to have been comprehensively ignored.

Top crowd psychologist Professor Steve Reicher was interviewed on Good Morning Britain about this emerging scandal on May 25th. He spoke about how the mass adherence to the lockdown restrictions that we saw during the first phase (from 23/3-10/5/20) can be explained psychologically by people acting for the wider common good, and not primarily for their own individual interests (as only a minority of the population are classified as vulnerable groups and/or in need of shielding from COVID). Along with John Drury in an article for the Psychologist in March written just before the lockdown, he argued that the response to COVID would be more effective if a collective (as opposed to individualized) identity approach was adopted ('we're all in this together'). Steve Reicher knows what he's talking about, as along with other psychologists, he sits on the SPI-B group that advises the government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) advising on the COVID response. In a series of Tweets, he illustrates how Boris Johnson backing Dominic Cummings has now 'trashed' all the advice they gave about how to communicate with the public in emergencies to encourage greater compliance with necessary safety measures, and this advice echoes recommendations that myself and others have made on how to encourage greater resilience in the public in emergencies (Drury et al, 2019). In my previous blogpost written just before the initial COVID lockdown in March, I was critical of the delay in implementing the lockdown, especially because it seemed to be based upon concerns about 'behavioural fatigue' in the public at lockdown measures- a concept that lacked evidence in the social sciences, and that myself and others had not heard of previously. In a later Podcast in April that I did for my University, I talked about social distancing and why compliance with the first phase of lockdown restrictions had been much better than expected- something that seemed to have surprised the media and authorities, but not those of us who research mass emergencies, as our work has shown countless examples of how well people and communities can cope with adversity. However, while such collective resilience is heartening to see, and also what we predicted, it cannot be taken for granted, and those in authority need to work with the public to develop and maintain a sense of collective unity that encourages more co-operative behaviour in mass emergencies. 

Use of rhetoric in emergencies:
Over the years I have spoken frequently to those involved in emergency planning and response from many different backgrounds about the research I have done with colleagues. I am pleased to observe that over time there seems to be increased acceptance for our overall message that human behaviour in mass emergencies is usually much better than is often expected, and that the concept of 'mass panic' where people behave selfishly and/or irrationally is largely a myth. This co-operative behaviour is best explained by the emergence of a shared identity during the incident among those affected (most of whom would have been total strangers before the incident began) So, for example, the work I did with John Drury & Steve Reicher on the 7/7/2005 London bombings (Drury et al 2009 a & b) found that those directly affected by the explosions often talked about a shared identity, and a sense that they were 'all in it together', so therefore, everyone needed to co-operate together to escape the threat.

Therefore, I am a passionate advocate of this concept of the togetherness and collective resilience that can emerge from a shared sense of urgency to escape from life threatening emergencies. However, I am also often asked whether such resilience to one-off 'big bang' events can endure in the face of ongoing adversity (such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic). My usual response is that we need to know more to be able to answer that question effectively, but what evidence there is (such as a classic study of civilian populations' resilience in the face of the bombing campaigns of WW2), seems to show that collective resilience can endure under the right circumstances. However, such resilience requires those in authority to be honest, open and consistent in their messaging and to treat the public equitably. If there is a public sense of inequity ('one rule for us and another for them') and/or belief that others are not adhering to necessary social norms (such as adhering to the lockdown restrictions) then such collective resilience can dissipate, as people no longer feel such a shared bond to behave co-cooperatively and are more likely to behave competitively. Studies of international emergencies (such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake- Rahill et al, 2014) have also found that if disasters exacerbate existing inequality, then this can lead to tension and/or violence between the 'haves' and 'have-nots'. Therefore, appeals by politicians for people to come together in emergencies need to be backed up with real practical attempts to engender and maintain such collective unity, otherwise it risks becoming empty rhetoric that will simply fall on deaf ears. 

The current scandal regarding Dominic Cummings' visit to Durham in breach of lockdown restrictions should not just be a political point scoring exercise, as there could be real consequences for overall public behaviours in this current pandemic. So for instance, if people become aware that others are not staying at home and/or not maintaining appropriate social distancing when outside, then they will be less motivated to do so themselves, and this can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy (especially if the media report stories of people visiting beauty spots en masse). If the actions of Dominic Cummings erode further public trust in and compliance with the current lockdown restrictions, we may live (or not) to regret the consequences of how this scandal affects our ability to maintain a united response to the current COVID pandemic.


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Everyone for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48487-506

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.

Drury J, Carter H, Cocking C, Ntontis E, Tekin Guven S and Amlôt R (2019) Facilitating Collective Psychosocial Resilience in the Public in Emergencies: Twelve Recommendations Based on the Social Identity Approach. Frontiers in Public Health 7:141. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

Rahill G, Ganapati E, Clérismé J & Mukherji A (2014) Shelter recovery in urban Haiti after the earthquake: the dual role of social capital. Disasters, 38, (1) 73-93

Sunday 15 March 2020

Coronavirus and Social Psychology

The Coronavirus has become a global pandemic and taken its hold in most countries, particularly in Europe. As I write this there are now over 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, with 1,140 in the UK, and tragically nearly 6000 deaths (although this figure will no doubt rise in the coming weeks and months). There are also plans to limit large scale gatherings and isolate the over 70s in the UK, and many European countries are already in lock-down, with flight and/or entry bans. In my own Higher Education sector, there have been moves to provide more online teaching and the University of Liverpool recently announced a ban on face to face classes, with other universities already following this lead. We are clearly facing a global health emergency not seen since the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918-1920, and so we need to take urgent and drastic action. In this blog I will explore why I think the current UK government's response is inadequate (and possibly based on selective and/or flawed interpretations of the scientific evidence), but also provide positive examples of how I think we can get through this crisis. 

UK response
It has been reported that many UK scientists are critical of the government's current response to the crisis as it is putting more lives at risk, and nearly 250 have signed an open letter calling for the urgent implementation of stronger social distancing measures. There have also been discussions about concerns of  possible 'fatigue' in the public complying with necessary lock-down behaviours, and in a recent Twitter exchange with The Psychologist, myself and others questioned the evidence base for where such concerns have come from. There is also an open letter by behavioural scientists calling for more transparency relating to the evidence used to support this assumption of behavioural fatigue. As a counter-point, a classic study by Charles Fritz into disasters and mental health, found that civilian populations were remarkably resilient in the face of open ended threats- particularly the bombing of UK & German cities in WW2, and they never reached a point where they were no longer able to cope with the threat and the wider social fabric fell apart. It does also seem that the UK authorities have been rather selective in their use of evidence from social science, and a recent blog by Oliver Klein criticized their apparent over-emphasis on nudge theory (an approach introduced when David Cameron was PM). Nudge theory has been criticized by social psychologists (Mols et al 2015) as being ethically dubious (it subtly manipulates people to subconsciously change their behaviour), and also that social identity approaches would be more effective in encouraging compliance with positive health related behaviours by getting people to actively identify with the positive social norms suggested by appealing to the greater collective benefit.

Social distancing
There is an emerging consensus among the scientific community that stricter social distancing measures (such as those currently in place in Italy and Spain) are urgently needed in the UK- something I wholeheartedly support. On the face of it, social distancing may seem a little counter-intuitive to someone who created this very blog to highlight the social benefits of crowds. However, there are obviously very valid reasons for curtailing mass gatherings in the current pandemic, and many epidemiologists are calling for such measures to be taken to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus (a recent tweet Brian Cox highlighted the sheer illogicality of cramming people together for hours at US airports in a supposed effort to reduce infection). Previous evidence from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic shows that social distancing can have a real effect in reducing mortality rates. Therefore, we need to consider how can we encourage a shared sense of identity and hence collective support in the absence of the face to face interactions you would see at mass gatherings. There are concerns about the possible negative psychological impacts of quarantine and self-isolation (see a recent review by Brooks et al in The Lancet), and Haslam et al (2018)'s work on the Social Cure also highlights the possible negative effects of social isolation. Therefore, it is vital to emphasize the importance of maintaining social connections when people are self-isolating, and this is where social media and other forms of online support can play a crucial role.  For instance, there are already various on-line community groups that have been set up to support people more at risk from COVID-19, such as this Facebook page for Brighton COVID-19 Mutual Aid, and below is a postcard that is being put through people's doors nationally to offer help.

Image may contain: text
There have been numerous reports of people stockpiling goods especially toilet roll (which to the best of my knowledge won't help mitigate any of the symptoms of Coronavirus!), which has caused much speculation by the media and other commentators that this is irrational 'panic-buying'. I would say that while we clearly need to discourage stockpiling of goods, far from being an example of 'panic', such action is a classic example of a social dilemma, whereby what is in the individual interest (stocking up on goods before they run out) is not in the collective interest, as there aren't enough stocks in the supply chain for everyone to do this. Furthermore, those that are doing the stockpiling (eg those who are young, fit, and have the financial resources to do so) are less likely to be the ones who are most at risk from COVID-19. There are now calls for supermarkets to restrict some products, including this tweet from a retired senior police officer. Thankfully, these calls seem to have been heard, and supermarkets are now asking people to only buy what they need. However, as is depressingly common, the media still insists on reporting these situations as 'panic-buying', thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, as happened in the 2012 fuel crisis, and I made this very point in an interview for BBC Radio5 Live (my bit starts 21.40 into it). What the media should be reporting is the equally true (if not as exciting) message that if people only bought what they needed in the short term, then there would be sufficient stocks for everyone. The term 'panic' itself is also deeply problematic, as it doesn't accurately reflect what people actually do in emergencies, and myself and other colleagues have been arguing for years that the term shouldn't be used to describe emergency behaviour- see The truth about panic on the British psychological Society's web-page about Coronavirus.

 Notice to shoppers in Brighton superstore

Don't personalize, collectivize!
In The Psychologist online page on Coronavirus, John Drury and Steve Reicher argue that we need to collectivize the response to COVID-19 and this is best done by not appealing to selfish individual interests (will I survive?), and instead focus on broader collective interests (how do we all get through this?). This backs up a recent paper done in collaboration with colleagues involved in researching emergencies on how to advise planners to manage emergencies effectively (Drury et al, 2019).  One of the over-arching recommendations was that cooperation is more likely when people feel a shared sense of threat, and so we need to encourage people to develop a common identity in response to this threat (eg encourage the idea that we're all in this together and we need to cooperate to come through it effectively). There is historical precedent for this, and a recent article by Chris Creegan highlights the organisation and collective solidarity that emerged from the LGBTQ community in response to the AIDS virus, and how such solidarity is crucial in the current crisis;
'The key to all this — and the clue to how we survive a plague now — was community activism. However governments act, and they must, our way through this lies with all of us — in civil society. Whatever the necessity of ‘social distancing’ our need for social connection has been brought into the sharpest relief imaginable. We will get through this together.

So, I would like to end with a more positive message that I believe we can get through this crisis if we work together and don't compete with each other. I do not in any way want to downplay the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, and I know that people will be fearful of losing loved ones (I am very concerned about my own family members who are in the high risk demographic groups). However, I think it is also worth remembering that most people (even those in high risk groups) will either not contract COVID-19, or make a full recovery, and that we will all get through this if we pull together. However, we do need to act collectively to overcome this crisis, as that will result in a much more effective response than if we act in more individual ways.


Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Tekin Guven, S., & Amlôt, R. (2019). Facilitating collective psychosocial resilience in the public in emergencies: Twelve recommendations based on the social identity approach. Frontiers in Public Health, 7 (141) doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

Haslam C, Jetten J, Cruwys C, Dingle GD, Haslam SA. (2018).The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure. London: Routledge  

Mols F, Mols S. Haslam A, Jetten J & Steffens N (2015) Why a nudge is not enough: A social identity critique of governance by stealth. European Journal of Political Research 54: 81–98, 2015

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)

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.