Saturday, 31 March 2012

Psychologist on BBC news

Fellow academic Cliff Stott talks about how we should avoid using the term panic to describe people's behaviour during the current fuel crisis, and instead look at ways of encouraging people to act collectively rather than individually;

Friday, 30 March 2012

It's not just the media...

Since my previous post on what I felt was irresponsible reporting of the recent fuel crisis, I feel I should add in the sake of fairness, that while the media could have covered the story better, one could argue it was the spectacularly ill-advised and ill-informed comments by politicians that sparked the 'panic-buying' in the first place.

My sense is that those involved in the fuel supply business and emergency planning in general are not best-pleased with the pronouncements put out by politicians like the Cabinet Minster Franics Maude, telling people to stockpile petrol in Jerry cans. Or as an anonymous contact involved in emergency planning delicately put it;

“Francis Maude is not only monumentally stupid by telling people to buy highly volatile liquid and store it in their homes at a time when the fire engines may be short of petrol to respond to the resulting fire, but is also encouraging them to break the law, as Jerry cans hold 20lt and the legal limit of fuel you can store at home is 10lt split between two 5lt plastic containers.”

On a more serious note, a woman from York is now seriously ill in hospital with 40% burns after trying to decant petrol in her kitchen, and the fumes ignited from a flame from the cooker;

So politicians need to be very careful what they say when they offer 'advice' on how to deal with possible fuel shortages, and think of public safety rather than any possible ulterior political motives, such as trying to undermine the proposed industrial action by tanker drivers (which were today ruled out over Easter in any case).

Press Release on 'panic-buying'

Link follows below to a better formatted version of the Press Release my Uni has put out about the recent fuel crisis with a rather unshaven picture of me attached!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

fellow academic blog on panic-buying

Link below to a more detailed analysis of the recent 'panic-buying' by Dr John Drury from the University of Sussex, who I worked with on an ESRC funded  psychology of mass emergencies project from 2004-7.

I hate to say I told you so...

It looks like the self-fulfilling prophesy of fuel shortages is continuing, and headlines from the BBC such as 'Panic buying' fuel queues increase' ( can only encourage this process. I remember a few years back, I was at a seminar on how the media operate in emergencies, and our advice was that the media should avoid reporting such incidents as 'panic-buying' to avoid these situations escalating. One brave local BBC journalist there did declare that she would no longer use the term in her coverage, but it looks like this didn't develop into a broader policy! 

I'm not saying that the media shouldn't report such events (which is their job after all), but they should really think about the language they use to cover such events. Rather than using the term 'panic-buying', why not circulate the more responsible (and indeed accurate) message that fuel stocks are sufficient if people don't all rush out at the same time & fill up their tanks? The ill-advised comments by Francis Maude that people should fill up Jerry cans with petrol could be seen as the trigger for people starting to fill up their tanks, but the media could have thought a bit harder about how they presented the story and events afterwards.

A Press Release put out by my University is cut and pasted below, and a link to an interview I did on the Julia Hartley-Brewer lunchtime radio show for LBC is available via;

Media to blame for panic buying
Media reporting of panic buying may fuel the sudden queues at petrol stations more than any industrial action, according to an expert in crowd behaviour.
Christopher Cocking, a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at University of Brighton who specialises in the psychology of crowd behaviour, says the media have a responsibility to be more considered in how they report the threat of industrial action by fuel tanker drivers over pay and conditions.
Talk of panic buying hit the headlines yesterday after Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude reportedly said that people should fill up Jerry cans of petrol to avoid running out.
The media have drawn parallels with the fuel crisis of 2000 when oil refineries were blockaded. Cocking says, however, that it was not industrial action that caused the crisis, but fears of fuel shortages which caused people to fill up their tanks en masse and petrol stations to run out of supplies.  Ironically, he says, there is now talk of a similar fuel crisis before any strike action has even begun. He emphasises the importance of providing accurate information in emergency situations.
In a blog on the subject, he says: “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 interest. 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 rather than the greater good. Therefore, 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 shortages”. 
Cocking researches how people behave in emergencies and issues such as panic buying. He has previously commented, for instance, on the evacuation of the Costa Concordia and last year's riots.
He says “myths” about panic-stricken behaviour among crowds often seem more based fictional stereotypes than the facts. For instance, he says there was no evidence that passengers on the Costa Concordia panicked, despite reports. He adds that similarly there is no data to support assertions that protesters can be incited to violence by others in the absence of other contextual factors.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

reports of panic-buying- a self-fulfilling prophesy?

This week the UK trade union Unite announced its intention for strike action by fuel tanker drivers over pay and conditions. Today (28/3/2012), the BBC is reporting hurried meetings in the Cabinet Office to discuss public fears that we could see a re-run of the 2000 fuel crisis where the pumps ran dry. The Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude is reported as saying that people should fill up Jerry cans of petrol  to avoid running out, and reports of 'panic-buying' are starting to happen (

This seems to be the beginning of a depressing re-run of the 2000 fuel crisis, with renewed fears of petrol stations running dry, but the irony this time being that there are currently no blockades of oil refineries (as there were in 2000), and while I am writing this strike dates have not even been announced! What caused the pumps to run dry in 2000 was not the blockades themselves, but the fact that people feared a shortage, and then all went to fill up their tanks, which the stocks could not cope with, as they don't anticipate everyone having a full tank at the same time. If the media reports panic buying is reported, then a self-fulfilling prophesy can develop, which is what then causes fuel shortages- not any industrial action. See my previous blog entry which looked at possible psychological explanations for this phenomeon, and how I think the media have a responsibility to be more considered in their reporting of such matters

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Leaked Hillsborough papers

The BBC reports that it has seen some leaked confidential papers about the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster;

In the papers disclosed so far, it appears that senior officers from Merseyside Police in briefings to Margaret Thatcher  claimed four days after the disaster that drunken fans were responsible for the tragedy. This claim was later shown to be utter rubbish by the official report into the tragedy by Lord Justice Taylor who concluded the "great majority were not drunk or even the worse for drink," and that "some officers, seeking to rationalise their loss of control, overestimated the drunkenness in the crowd".

Clearly, such attempts to blame fans for the tragedy are offensive and very upsetting for both the families of the bereaved and survivors, and shows how, in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough, a totally flawed view developped that the fans were in some way culpable (rather than the now generally accepted view that woefully poor crowd management was responsible for the disaster), and that this seemed to be in part a coping strategy to deal with the Police's inability to safely control the situation.

We shall see what else comes out from the rest of the papers, but it depresses me that such flawed explanations for the causes of the disaster (and of how crowds behave in general) were not only put forward by Police officers from Merseyside (who probably weren't at the match which was held in South Yorkshire), but that they were allowed to brief the highest politicians in the country with such flawed opinions.

I can only hope that attitudes towards crowd management have changed since Hillsborough if any such future tragedies are to be prevented.