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

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