Monday, 24 January 2011

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. 

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