Monday, 31 December 2012

2012- A year in 'panic' blogging

In keeping with the endless round-ups of the year that we see in the UK media, I thought I'd do one for my blog. It was originally set up as a rant about how the media portrayed my very positive experiences on holiday in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution. But it has evolved into a regular attempt to re-dress the coverage of crowds away from the outdated & ill-informed positions that falsely assume that they are irrational and unable to act sensibly, because they are prone to 'disorder' or 'mass panic'.

The year began with the grounding of the Italian cruise ship the Costa Concordia. Initial coverage emphasised the 'panic' of survivors, but the evidence that emerged painted a very different picture, and a subsequent Channel 4 documentary made some very interesting points about how people actually behave in emergencies.

March saw a fuel crisis in the UK similar to the last one in 2000, where the threat of a fuel tankers' strike (which never actually happened) caused many petrol stations to run dry. I wrote a Press release that was circulated by my University explaining how the media needed to act more responsibly in situations like this, because reports of 'panic-buying' can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I also thought it was worth stating that the crisis emerged because of some spectatcularly bad advice from a government minister telling people to stock up on petrol at home.

There was also action closer to home, as my local Police force (Sussex Police) changed their approach to public order policing advised by a crowd psychologist (Dr. Clifford Stott) and began using Police Liason Officers (PLOs) on demonstrations. These teams are supposed to increase dialogue and mutual trust between protestors and the Police with their first appearance happening this June when the far-right group the English Defence League visited Brighton, and were met by counter demonstrators from the local community. The use of PLOs is supported by current social psychological evidence of crowd behaviour, but has also been controversial amongst some protestors, who question the Police's intentions in creating a genuine dialogue, and some believe their use to be little more than sophisticated intelligence gathering.

The summer brought a wealth of attention to the Olympics, and I argued that even in the most positive situations, crowds can still be considered in a pathological way. This was illustrated by Boris Johnson describing the mood in Olympics crowds as like a 'benign virus'. I also argued that the crowd support for team GB athletes was a very good example of the positive effects crowds can have on performance.

September saw the release of the independent report into the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster, where 96 Liverpool fans died. The report concluded that the fans were not in any way to blame for the disaster, which was largely caused by shocking crowd mismanagement that viewed policing football matches as a public order rather than public safety problem. The acquital on manslaughter charges (and later sacking) of PC Simon Harwood for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 protests also showed how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics can have tragic consequences even for uninvolved bystanders.

In November I paid tribute to Clive Dunn who was famous for being Corporal Jones in the BBC comedy 'Dad's Army', as it was his catchphrase 'DON'T PANIC!' that was the inspiration for the title of this blog. Finally, December saw the world not ending as was predicted by those who thought that it would because the Mayan calendar ran out on Dec 21st. I looked at how believers coped when their predictions of apocalypse were not met.

So, in all it's been a rather busy year, and I'm sure I'll be blogging in the new year about how crowds continue to be (mis) represented in the media and popular culture. Thanks to all who read my blog in 2012.  I hope you all have a joyous New Year's Eve and a happy 2013. I can't make the gig below being held tonight in North Carolina, US, but it looks like it would be my kind of thing!


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Cosy science seminar podcast

I did a talk in November 2012 for the Cosy Science group that gets scientists to talk about their research to the general public in an informal, relaxed setting. I think it's really important to get academic research out of the ivory tower and accessible to the general public, so I was happy to do it. The fact that the talk was in one of my favourite pubs in London (the Cittie of Yorke Samuel Smith pub, near Chancery lane), also made it quite an enjoyable evening altogether.

I have just found out that there is a podcast available of an short interview I did afterwards for the i science magazine (run by students from Imperial College, London). The interviewer comments after she'd spoken to me that while the room was really packed for my talk, she didn't feel panicked at all, which was quite nice to hear, but also interesting as I think it highlights quite well how when considering crowd flow and density, it's vital to also consider the psychological relationship that people have with crowds. So, people will often tolerate (or even seek out) greater crowd density if they feel a sense of psychological connection with others around them. This is why people will often try to dance down the front at concerts or festivals and report it as a positive experience, but would not enjoy the same crowd density if they were in a packed tube train, because in the absence of a shared fate (such as happened after the explosions on the tube on 7/7/2005), they would probably feel less connection with others. This has been supported by experimental evidence (eg Novelli et al, 2010), where participants preferred to be closer to people with whom they felt a sense of psychological unity.

Novelli, D., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2010). Come together: Two studies concerning the impact of group relations on ‘personal space’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 223–236.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Whoops, no Apocalypse!

Just seen an interesting article on the BBC web-site about how believers cope when their predictions of armageddon are not met. Some believed that because the Mayan calendar doesn't continue after 21/12/2012, this would have meant the end of the world today, and have prepared for the impending apocalypse in various eccentric ways around the world. However, as I write this (approaching 19.00 GMT), the world does not seem to have ended yet, and assuming it doesn't in the next 5 hours the doom-mongers will have to find another date to look forward to.

The psychologist Leon Festinger studied a group of people who believed the world was going to end in the 1950s, and found that they coped with the world not ending by convincing themselves that their actions had "spread so much light", that the world had been spared by God, rather than admitting that perhaps their beliefs had been wrong all along. Festinger named this process  as 'cognitive dissonance' to explain how people re-frame events that don't go the way they expected, so they don't lose faith in the particular prophesy or world view that they (or the group they belong to) have, and why people don't always distance themselves from religious groups whose apocalyptic visions aren't realised.

Of course, I sincerely hope that no prediction of the world ending does comes true. If it ever does happen though, I'm sure people won't panic, but it will be the least of my and everyone else's concerns if I end up being proved wrong!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Glimmer of hope for London Met Uni?

Just seen a couple of interesting articles in Red Pepper about the recent crisis at my former employer's- London Metropolitan University (LMU), that I covered in previous blog posts this August and September

The articles are by Andrew McGettigan, and Max Watson from Unison (the union for support staff at LondonMet), and explore the context behind the decision by the UK Border Agency to revoke LMU's licence to sponsor non-EU students, as well as the currently successful campaign against the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet. It seems that rather than being linked purely to historical problems, as the current Vice Chancellor (Malcolm Gillies) has insinuated, there are also things that have happened on his watch  that relate to this decision. In April 2012, the UKBA gave permission for London Met to to offer degrees on the behalf of the private London School of Business and Finance (which could not issue its own degrees) in a deal rumoured to be worth c. £5m per annum. However, in May 2012, the UKBA began investigating this contract with LSBF, leading to the decision in August to revoke London Met's licence to recruit foreign students.

There are also rumours of divisions within government over this issue, as it appears that Theresa May the Home Secretary took the decision to revoke the licence, rather than it being an ‘operational decision’ by the UKBA. This decision may also relate to wider pressure from the political right to reduce net migration in the UK, which may have over-ruled the the Universities Minister David Willetts in this matter, who may be less keen on making it harder for foreign students to enter the UK. When the increase in tuition fees was first announced by Willetts, he stated that he did not expect all Universities to charge the maximum £9000 pa fee, and that the market would decide a wide range of possible fees. However, most Universities realised they could not afford to do anything except charge the maximum if they were to continue providing the quality of education expected from them. Nevertheless, LondonMet decided to embrace this market-based approach to fees, offering a range of fees starting at £4500 for foundation courses all the way up to the maximum for some courses, with an average of £6850. This attracted criticism from the unions that it would inevitably mean a drop in educational standards or the cutting of unprofitable courses.   

When I was at LondonMet, there were rumours of possible links between government education officials and senior management at LondonMet, which were fuelled in 2010 by the appointment of Jonathan Woodhead (a senior adviser to David Willetts) on a £75,000 pa contract as executive officer.  However, any notions that they would be rewarded for cosying up to Willett's reforms and embracing the new market-based approach to fees were dispelled by the UKBA decision last August. It is also suspected that the current mangement's focus on pursuing the proposed privatisation of services at LondonMet meant they failed to notice the looming crisis with the UKBA.

How this issue will develop is unclear, and LondonMet is not out of danger yet, but the fact that management have backed down in their plan to privatise all non-academic staff is a faint glimmer of hope, and will hopefully encourage the staff and students to cope with the challenges they still face.  

Friday, 14 December 2012

CDC preparations for Zombie Apocalypse

The US based Center for Disease Control has a rather amusing zombie preparation plan on-line which I had heard about, but only recently found. It was initally done as a tongue in cheek way to get people to take emergency preparation seriously, and has become something of a cult hit on the web. I'm not sure how real they think the threat of a zombie apocalypse is, but it never hurts to be prepared, as the following photo from the annual zombie walk through Brighton shows!