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.