Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 review of the year

Following my review of 2012, I thought I'd have another go for 2013 and also welcome new followers to my blog. I was initially inspired to write a blog following my experiences on holiday in Tunisia in Jan 2011 during the Jasmine revolution which was the first of many popular uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, but it has since evolved into a general commentary of how I think crowds are often misrepresented in popular culture and discourse. 2013 has also been another busy year for me as I set about correcting what are often outdated myths about crowds that are rarely supported by detailed studies of their actual behaviour. My interests can broadly be described in the following three main areas which I will cover in turn in this review:

a) Exploring populist descriptions of crowd behaviour, questioning whether the terms used are useful in describing what people actually do, and considering the implications of such descriptions

b) How irrationalist views of crowds can affect the ways in which they are policed & how people involved in collective action protests can often experience positive and lasting psychological change

c) How those affected by mass emergencies can (and should) be used as a potential resource in their aftermath as people co-operate to support each other and rebuild their communities in times of adversity  

A critique of 'panic' narratives 
I began the year by looking at how a fatal fire in a Brazilian nightclub was reported, and I argued that using 'panic' to describe people's behaviour as they evacuated seemed to be not only inaccurate, but also risked diverting attention away from the possible negligence of the building's owners, as the wrong kind of pyrotechnics were used, and the club only had one working fire exit. I also looked at tragedies at two religious festivals in India this February and October, and argued that describing the crowds' actions as 'stampedes' could serve a similar purpose by blaming the 'crazed' behaviour of pilgrims rather than what looked like woeful crowd mismanagement on the part of the Indian authorities.
In May a paper I co-wrote with John Drury on the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was published. In it, we explored how survivors of the disaster often used the term 'panic' to describe their experiences, despite clearly having good reason to reject the irrationalist implications that go along with such usage (the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report concluded that fans were not responsible for the disaster, thus dispelling a controversial myth that had previously been propagated by some aspects of the media). We concluded that this was a good example of how people in such situations can be constrained by the language available to them, and that this was yet more evidence to show that the word 'panic' is inadequate to describe how people behave in such emergencies. Furthermore, use of this term in social discourse can encourage crowd management that views crowds from a public 'order' rather than public safety perspective, and the Hillsborough disaster is a tragic case of what can happen if crowd events are considered in this way.

In November, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, and the media were quick to talk about fears of the breakdown of law and order, freely using terms such as 'looting', although they presented little evidence to support this. I felt this was re-hashing clich├ęd narratives about how communities are supposed to descend into 'lawlessness' after natural disasters, and pointed out that there was similar reporting when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, despite the fact that detailed investigations afterwards concluded that reports of such lawlessness were often vastly exaggerated, and crime rates tend to drop after such incidents.

Most recently, accounts from those who witnessed the recent collapse of the ceiling of Apollo Theatre in London's West End, showed quite well how people can co-operate in such situations, with existing social attachment bonds between family members and friends remaining. I also argued that people would also co-operate to help strangers in emergency evacuations, as a common identity often emerges in the face of a shared threat which encourages co-operation rather than selfish behaviour. This post was mentioned in an article in the Guardian, which massively increased hits on my blog, and quickly made it the most widely accessed post I have written so far.  

Hillsborough disaster
The 1989 Hillsborough football disaster

Public order policing 
In January, I had a paper published that looked at how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics (such as 'kettling' to contain crowds or charges to disperse them) could escalate rather than reduce crowd conflict because it psychologically united crowd members against a shared threat. Later in the year, there were   marches in Brighton and London by the far-right English Defence League, and I looked at how such events can attract clashes in views of legitimacy which can result in actual physical clashes between opposing sides and/or the police. However, I also argued that the police's sometimes rather selective use of public order legislation (such as the 1986  Public Order Act) can exacerbate mutual distrust if there is a perception that opposing groups are being treated differently and make further conflict more likely. I also argued that the acquittals of two students charged with violent disorder after their involvement in the 2010 tuition fee protests, were good examples of how public order legislation is often underpinned by outdated irrationalist views of crowd behaviour.  

The summer saw anti-fracking protests in Balcombe, West Sussex, and I looked at how those involved could develop a wider sense of collective identity that goes beyond the specific local issue they were protesting about, how there can be differing views of legitimacy between the protestors and the police, and how their measures of success could also go beyond the specific protest itself. Similar psychological processes also seemed apparent during student protests in England in March and December, and I argued that while the campaigns could be initially inspired by a specific issue, they could often grow into covering wider issues relating to Higher Education (and beyond), and even extend into a debate about the right to protest itself.

Police 'kettle' anti EDL protestors September 2013 

First Responders
The final area I looked at was how those directly affected by mass emergencies are often best placed to respond in the immediate aftermath before outside help from first responders arrives. Therefore, they could serve as 'zero-responders', and this is a valuable potential resource that should not be overlooked in such situations. The attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya this September showed how in this situation where first responders were delayed in reaching victims, uninjured bystanders helped others to escape, tend to the wounded, and in some cases, even lead security forces back into the Mall to locate other survivors.More recently, the Glasgow helicopter crash in November was a classic example of how people often rush into to emergency situations (instead of rushing away to reach safety) to help those in need, and the only people who seemed surprised about this were the journalists who had turned up to cover the story! Finally, when Lee Rigby's attackers were found guilty of his murder this December, I argued that this contradicted early psychological research that suggested bystanders were apathetic to others in need, and that in the right situations, people would intervene to help others.

Bystanders to Lee Rigby's murder intervene to confront the attackers before 1st responders arrive 


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason?Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. 

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2013) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Apollo theatre roof collapse

London's West End is reeling after the sudden collapse of the ceiling in the Apollo theatre during a performance of 'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time'. The performance was nearly full with around 720 people in the 775 capacity theatre, and 76 people were injured, with seven of them seriously. Mercifully though, no-one was killed, and the London Fire Brigade  has stated that it was lucky more were not injured. The Guardian newspaper reports eye-witnesses hearing a bang and seeing a cloud of dust that some people initially thought was part of the performance.This quickly changed, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but the following quotes illustrate that people's behaviour remained orderly; "people realised it must be some sort of emergency and people started getting up... people didn't panic".  The sudden and unexpected nature of this incident means that it was a potentially distressing experience for those affected, but people still remained calm; "people were scared, but they weren't screaming". I also saw a tweet from a colleague at my University who was in the theatre, and she acknowledges the distress, but refutes the idea of 'panic'

Interviews with eye-witnesses by Channel 4 news also report that when a crack appeared in the ceiling, someone in the audience stood up and told everyone to get out, which people quickly did. So it seems that it was a remarkably efficient evacuation, with casualties occurring during the initial roof collapse, and no reports of injuries sustained while people exited the venue. People also tried to locate members of their own groups before they evacuated, meaning I very much doubt there was any kind of crazed 'stampede' to get out. The BBC also reports instances of people protecting more vulnerable family members-

"I tried to cover my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, to protect her but some of the debris fell on her back"

These accounts are very much in line with the social attachment theory (Mawson, 2005; 2007), which argues that in emergencies people don't tend to 'panic', but seek out familiar attachment figures (e.g. friends or family), and tend to evacuate as groups. The idea that people will 'stampede' to save themselves is not supported by evidence. Work I have done with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury & Cocking, 2007; Drury et al. 2009) has supported social attachment theory. We also found that disasters can create a sense of shared identity, meaning that strangers can and do co-operate with each other in life-threatening situations. Finally, in a previous post I looked at coverage of a fire in a packed nightclub in Brazil, in January 2013, and argued that we should be careful not to rush to describe people's behaviour in such situations as 'panic', as it could deflect blame for possible negligence on the part of those responsible for the safe management of such events. 
The response by the emergency services to this event appears to have been exemplary, with a very quick response (I have seen reports that some arrived on scene within 3 minutes), and I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured. However, I also think questions need to be asked about the possible safety of London's theatres.  I was fortunate enough to see some plays and musicals in the West End as a child and have fond memories of being in the Apollo and other West End theatres. These venues are classic examples of the old style theatres that the West End is famous for, but some of the buildings are now quite old, and stricter safety checks may be necessary to prevent any future incidents. The safety of people attending such events  has to take priority over all else, and safe crowd management should never be compromised in the pursuit of maximising profits.  

Debris on seats


Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/affiliates/panic/Disasters%20and%20emergency%20evacuations%20(2007).pdf

Drury, J Cocking, C & Reicher, S (2009) Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.

Mawson, A.R. (2005). Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threat and disaster. Psychiatry, 68, 95-113.

Mawson, A. (2007). Mass panic and social attachment: The dynamics of human behavior. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bystander intervention and the Woolwich barracks attack

Today (19/12/13), the jury reached a verdict in the Woolwich barracks attack of May 2013, and perhaps unsurprisingly both suspects were found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby. The British media (such as this coverage by the BBC) is currently full of details of this shocking attack in broad daylight in a quiet area of suburban London. Therefore, I will limit this blog to focussing on the responses of the bystanders who witnessed it, as I think they yet again show the amazing resilience and courage that people can exhibit when exposed to such horrific situations. Furthermore, the notion that bystanders will always be apathetic to others in times of need (a concept known in Psychology as the bystander effect) is too simplistic and not always supported by evidence, especially during serious and/or life threatening emergencies.

In previous posts, I have looked at how survivors and bystanders intervened to help each other during the 7/7/2005 London bombings, and the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya this September, and this also seems to have happened immediately after the attack on Lee Rigby. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a cub scout leader from Cornwall (who is on the left in the image below) witnessed the attack, and become famous for her subsequent intervention. In interviews for the BBC, and the Daily Telegraph newspaper, she describes how she initially tried to help Lee Rigby, but then also engaged the perpetrators in conversation to try and prevent them from attacking others, and even asked one of them to hand over his weapon. The image also shows two other female bystanders talking to the other attacker.What I think is also significant, are the bizarre instances of near-normality in the period between the murder and the arrival of armed police on the scene. One of the attackers asked a bystander to film him while he made a speech seeking to justify his actions, and this became the infamous video clip that went around the world in the attack's aftermath. The footage shows the attacker speaking to the camera about the murder he has just committed, with his hands soaked in Lee Rigby's blood, as people walk past him, seemingly oblivious to what has just happened. I think both of these examples illustrate the almost complete lack of any 'panicked' behaviour in this situation, and also contradicts the idea that bystanders always ignore people in need (as the 'bystander effect' would predict).  

The murder of Lee Rigby was a truly shocking and horrific attack that risked dividing communities and briefly created a revival in the flagging fortunes of the Islamophobic English Defence League. However, a piece in The Guardian today argues it  has instead had the opposite effect to that intended by the attackers (to start a 'holy war' between Muslims & non-Muslims) and united communities in their opposition to such attacks. I believe that the selfless and courageous acts by passers-by on the day were perhaps the first example of such opposition and show how people can unite and come together to support each other in times of adversity.


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cole, J., Walters, M. & Lynch, M (2011). Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd's role in emergency response, Contemporary Social Science, 6 (3) 361-375.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009) The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Student protests at Sussex and London Universities

Student protests are on the upsurge again, with a wave of actions across the country (including occupations at Warwick and Sheffield as I write this), but I shall focus on the Universities of Sussex and London, where there have been increasingly disproportionate responses to their respective campaigns. Many commentators have rightly highlighted the excessive and disproportionate response implemented by the respective university authorities and the police, and have also raised questions about the morality and legitimacy of such actions. However, I would argue that such responses may also be counter-productive to the aims of the authorities, in that they could escalate current discontent and broaden the protestors' determination and appeal to others, thus prolonging their duration.

University of Sussex:

Sussex University has suspended five of its students for allegedly leading an occupation of the Bramber House conference building in support of the recent strike by staff in HE on 3/12/13 (the last Sussex occupation is covered in my previous post), and these students are currently banned from coming on to campus for any reason (even to see their GP). These students face possible sanction and/or expulsion if found guilty of misconduct under the University's disciplinary procedures. Sussex's registrar, John Duffy claimed that recent protests had seen 'violence, intimidation or serious disruption', but the Sussex 5 reject such claims, and argue instead that this action, along with a previous injunction to prevent protests on campus after the last occupation is part of an attempt to stifle legitimate protest.

Since the suspensions happened, there have been daily protests on Sussex campus, which have attracted hundreds of students and staff. At today's rally (6th Dec), staff spoke out in favour of the suspended students, saying that they were being penalised not because they'd broken any rules, but to intimidate others from getting involved. More interestingly, a member of staff from the University and Colleges Union (UCU), reported that colleagues of his who had previously not been interested in the campaign against outsourcing of services at Sussex (and did not take part in the recent national strike action either), were so outraged by the suspensions that they had now become involved. This suggests that support is growing rather than diminishing, but also that the campaign is also concerned with wider issues are now, and as the protest moved off for its regular walk round Sussex campus, protestors were chanting "re-instate the Sussex 5, keep democracy alive". I also saw what is probably the best resignation letter I have ever read, from a porter at Sussex university who was not prepared to work at Sussex any more because of the current situation. He describes very eloquently how the Vice-Chancellor's actions had created a community at Sussex in opposition to the proposed outsourcing of services, and finishes by advising the VC to 'go and violate yourself brutally with a pineapple'!.

University of London:
The protests against the proposed closure of the University of London Union (ULU) have seen much more violent scenes, with police and private security forcibly removing protestors from Senate House on the evening of 5/12/13, and arresting up to 40 students in the process, with reports of injuries and photos posted on Twitter of students's blood on the pavement. ULU president Michael Chessum (who was recently arrested under the public Order Act for allegedly organising an 'illegal demonstration at ULU) said; "I saw a level of police violence and violence from university security staff that I have not seen for a very long time, if ever." Those arrested at the protests in London have also been given bail conditions by the police that include an order not to 'be in a group of 4 or more persons... in any public place', leading some to conclude that the police are attempting to ban protests. 

Coverage by the Guardian newspaper of the protests reported there was a strong police presence stationed around University of London from the outset, with a significant proportion being from the Territorial Support Group (TSG) that deal with public order protests- attracting criticisms from students of collusion between the police and the University of London management. The article continues by highlighting the contexts in which the protests are occurring, and how protestors are making connections with other causes beyond the immediate issues that they are protesting about . For instance, protestors can be heard chanting  'you killed Mark Duggan' at police (whose fatal shooting triggered the 2011 riots in England), showing a wider sense of identification beyond the immediate issue of the protests. 

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Territorial Support Group police deployed outside ULU 6/12/13

It is clear to me that the way the campus protests are currently being dealt with at Sussex and London Universities illustrate the bureaucratic sanctions and also sheer physical brutality that student protestors can face. But I think these incidents can also unite protestors, widen their outlook (and consequent support), and make them more determined to continue with their campaigns.  So, in these particular campaigns, what initially began as campaigns against outsourcing  and/or  closure of services, are now being openly discussed in terms of defending  the right to protest. This is something that has been found in previous research (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al, 2003) into psychological change happening through involvement in collective action, and also in my exploration of the Balcombe fracking protests. On the day that the world is mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, one of the world's most famous campaigners against injustice, I think it is appropriate that his name was invoked at today's rally at Sussex and a minute's silence called in his honour. 

Nelson Mandela

Dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and his struggle against apartheid

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Drury, J., Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (2003). Transforming the boundaries of collective identity: From the "local" anti-road campaign to "global" resistance? Social Movement Studies, 2, 191-212.