Wednesday, 30 December 2015

UK floods & disaster myths

As I write this post, storm Frank is currently battering the UK, with many residents in the North and West of the country facing yet more storm damage and flooding. My heart goes out to those affected, and I sincerely hope that people are able to stay safe and their communities recover quickly (so far there have been mercifully few injuries and/or fatalities reported). As is usual in these situations, natural disasters can often bring out the best in people, and there have been many reports of co-operation and altruism amongst those affected. For instance, an article in the Guardian focuses on the stoicism and co-operation shown by the people of York in response to flooding in the town centre, and volunteers from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association  (AMYA) have been helping to clean up flood-hit towns in the North West. All this fits with the work John Drury and I have done (Cocking, 2013; Drury et al, 2009; Drury, 2012), where we argued that rather than dividing people, mass emergencies can bring communities together to co-operate in the face of a shared threat.

Volunteers from AMYA in action

'Looting' - a disaster myth:
However, despite this widespread outpouring of humanity, elements of the media have talked about how the floods have brought out a darker side of human nature. This has been apparent in the current emphasis being placed on the tiny minority of anti-social acts that have happened so far, and their willingness to use the term 'looting' before any detailed examination of the facts has happened.  For instance, the introduction to the evening edition of Channel 4 News on 29/12 referred to 'looting', but no evidence was produced in any of the reports to back up this assertion. This isn't to say that crime has been non-existent , and reports have been emerging of isolated crimes in flood-hit areas. For instance, the BBC  have reported that a man was arrested on suspicion of theft of goods from outside flood damaged properties in Mytholmroyd, (causing a storm of outrage from members of the public on the the West Yorks Police-Calderdale Valley Facebook site), and a bike shop in nearby Todmorden has also been burgled. These events resulted in local bikers offering to set up anti-looting patrols, but an LBC radio journalist later tweeted that West Yorkshire Police had declined this offer & set up extra patrols to reassure the public. Furthermore, the Police commented that the burglary at the bike shop was an isolated incident, and there was 'no suggestion it was widespread'. Finally, the BBC has reported that homes in York are being targeted by 'looters', saying  'a number of houses were broken into' . However, the Press Release issued by North Yorkshire Police refers to only 2 properties in the same street being affected- which sounds a lot less widespread than is implied in the original BBC report. This use of language is not mere semantics, because use of terms such as 'looting' (as opposed to 'theft or burglary'), invoke images of the breakdown of law and order/ anarchy etc. This can then create real fear in people, increase suspicion of others and even exacerbate social divisions, when they arguably need to be more united than ever before as they rebuild their communities.

Local bikers offer 'anti-looting' patrols

Overall, I would argue that so far we have seen very little examples of widespread anti-social behaviour in response to the floods and what has been far more common has been the generalised altruism and co-operation shown by those communities directly affected and also from outside volunteers coming in to help others. Unfortunately, the media still cling to the irrationalist notion that behind this veneer of cooperation we have seen so far, there lurks a darker side of humanity which we need to fear, and this is a depressingly familiar narrative in media coverage. In a previous post on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in Nov 2013, I looked at how the media often exaggerate the breakdown of law and order when communities are struck by natural disasters. This isn't to say that there isn't any anti-social behaviour at all after disasters, but crime rates tend to fall (although it would be naive to expect them to disappear altogether!) and that any instances are the exception and not the rule. Therefore, as suggested by Jacob (2008) in his study of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the idea of widespread anti-social behaviours such as 'looting', is one of many disaster myths perpetuated in social discourse that just doesn't stand up to detailed scrutiny of events in their aftermath.

A live map of areas affected by the flooding in the UK can be accessed here


Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (Ed.), Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective (pp.449-463). CABI: Oxford, UK.

Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: a social identity model. In: Jetten, J., Haslam, C. and Haslam, S. A. (Eds), The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being (pp. 195-215). Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

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(3), 487-506.

Jacob, B, Mawson, A, Payton M & Guignard (2008) Disaster mythology and fact: Hurricane Katrina & Social attachment. Public Health reports, 123. 555-566.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Paris attacks & their aftermath

France is in mourning after 129 were killed and over 400 injured after Friday's attacks at multiple locations throughout Northern Paris. There has been blanket coverage of these events elsewhere, and the situation is developing continually, so I will limit this entry to focusing on a couple of significant phenomena that have emerged so far: firstly, crowd responses during one of the incidents and in the immediate aftermath; and secondly the wider solidarity and social support that has been shown in response to these horrific attacks.

Bataclan concert hall

The incident that saw the worst loss of life was the attack on the Bataclan concert venue while the American band the 'Eagles of Death Metal' were playing, with 89 killed and almost 100 injured- some critically.  This was clearly an unimaginably horrific experience for those who had merely gone out expecting to see a rock concert. However, within this carnage, there were also examples of the amazing humanity and cooperation that those affected showed towards each other, which yet again contradicts the notion within media reporting that 'mass panic' is the dominant response in such emergencies. For instance, BBC coverage of the incident describes how people were led to safety via an emergency exit by a security guard (although the article still uses the term 'panic');
'Amid the confusion and panic, a security guard shouted for everyone to follow him through an emergency exit to the left of the stage'
Around 50 people also escaped by evacuating onto the roof of the venue, and a male survivor interviewed on the BBC's Newsnight on 16/11/15 (about 26 mins into clip), reports how he and a number of others co-operated to escape through a sky-light from the venue. Interestingly, he illustrates how social norms endured as he says that 'we tried to be gentlemen, so it was ladies first', and also describes how others showed great courage in helping others escape. Finally, there is a very moving (but also quite distressing) Facebook post from a survivor who also posted a photo of her blood-stained top (see below) that went viral and has so far received nearly 3 million likes and over 800,000 shares. In it she details the support and compassion that fellow survivors displayed to each other during the attack & how passers by helped the victims in the aftermath, and is consistent with work I did with John Drury  (Drury et al, 2009) into how people tend to behave during life-threatening emergencies.

Survivor's blood-stained top

False alarms & 'panic' in the aftermath?
There has been footage circulating on-line of instances of crowd flight on the streets of Paris that have happened since the attacks, leading to further media speculation of 'panic' and 'stampedes'. For instance, the Daily Telegraph shows a montage of 3-4 different video clips of crowd responses to an apparent false alarm after firecrackers were heard going off near the Place de la Republique. While there is clear evidence of rapid crowd flight in these clips, I would argue that this flight is a logical response to the very credible fear among people that there could have been further attacks. Furthermore, while the video shows people running and some even cutting across the candles and floral bouquets laid out in honor of the victims, no-one appears to be pushing other people (and there is certainly no evidence of anyone being trampled), and in a later clip, waiters  are beckoning in people from the street to take cover in their restaurant, and helping in as many people as they can- an evidently co-operative act and perhaps even at some risk to their own safety. This all fits with previous work I have done on crowd surges during riots (Cocking, 2013) and a blog on the recent disaster at the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, where I  argued that such situations should not be called 'stampedes', as the term is too pejorative, and is not supported by detailed study of what actually happens.

Shared unity & solidarity
In the broader aftermath of the attacks, there have been numerous acts of global solidarity and support offered to the victims. For instance, various bands have called off or postponed planned concerts as a mark of respect, with Bono from U2 demonstrating a shared sense of unity with the victims at the Bataclan concert hall;
"It's very upsetting. These are our people.This is the first direct hit on music that we've had in this so-called war on terror, or whatever it's called."
This sense of shared identity was also manifested in a tribute to one of the British victims, Nick Alexander, (who was selling T-shirts at the concert) in an Observer article, entitled ' we are all the road crew'. Various landmarks around the world were also lit up with the colours of the French Tricolore flag to show unity and solidarity with Paris, with some holding placards with the message 'we are all Parisians'. A similar thing happened in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this January, when #JeSuisCharlie became the most popular hashtag in Twitter's history. Again this fits with previous work that has been done into how exposure to adversity can bring people together. For instance, in an article I wrote with John Drury into the July 7th 2005 London bombings brought people together in their immediate aftermath, but there is also a concern that such attacks could increase Islamophobia and polarize communities in France and further afield. However, so far that does not appear to be happening, and when a demonstration was held in Lille, against the Paris attacks, a small group of far-right activists with an anti-Islamic banner who tried to join were chased off by the crowd. As events unfold, we will no doubt find out more about all these incidents and their consequences, but I hope that the examples of unity and solidarity we have seen so far can serve in whatever small way as a counter-balance to the awful scenes Paris has had to endure and not allow such murderous acts to allow intolerance and extreme ideology of any form to prevail.
Brighton Eye lit up with the colours of the Tricolore

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling, 10 (2) p.219-36. 
Cocking C & Drury, J (2015) As we remember 7/7, it’s time we learned to trust the crowd. The Conversation, 3/7/15.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Hajj 'stampede'?

Today saw the worst tragedy at the Hajj in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, as 717 Muslim pilgrims were killed and nearly 900 injured in a crowd crush while on their way to the holy sites of Mecca. Information is still filtering through, but it looks increasingly like a fatal crush occurred when two large groups of pilgrims converged from different directions onto one road, known as 204 Street (see the following map for more details). As a result of this tragedy, the Saudi King has ordered a safety review of the pilgrimage. This safety review is of course welcome news, but I also worry that the coverage of this disaster still draws too easily upon outdated notions of crowd behaviour- namely the use of the term 'stampede' to describe what happened, and that the media must stop using the term to describe such incidents.

Rushing to use the term 'stampede'?
As soon as news started breaking in about this tragedy (about 10.00 GMT on 24/9/15), the UK media began using 'stampede' in their headlines (and have largely continued to do so, ever since), which rapidly launched myself and others onto Twitter to take issue with the use of the term. In a blog from 2011, John Drury looks in detail at why the term 'stampede' is problematic when describing emergency behaviour, because it implies selfish and/or animalistic 'panicked' behaviour by those affected. More recently, in a blog after the Shanghai crowd tragedy on 13/12/2014, I argued that calling such tragedies as stampedes is rarely supported by later detailed examination of events. For instance, people rarely deliberately trample over others in crowd disasters (as is implied by the term 'stampede'), with victims more likely to die of compressive asphyxia because of dangerous levels of crowd density. Furthermore, the term 'stampede'  could also serve to deflect blame away from possible crowd management failings and onto the victims themselves (e.g. "crowd 'panic' causes disasters"). This point of prematurely attributing blame was addressed by John Drury and Keith Still, in interviews for the Telegraph newspaper today, where they were both critical of the apparent attempts by some members of the Saudi authorities to blame crowd members for the tragedy before the full facts were known. For instance, soon after the disaster happened, the Saudi Health Minister was reported as already speculating that the tragedy was caused by crowd members ignoring official advice;
'If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided'

The terrible scenes in Mina show the dangers that can exist in large crowds. However, I believe very strongly that it is possible to safely manage large numbers of people, and that tragedies such as the one seen today are not inevitable. However, when such tragedies do occur (and they are mercifully rare), I don't think it helps to describe them as 'stampedes', as it is such a loaded term, and does not accurately describe what actually happens in such incidents. Furthermore, it could also serve to unduly influence any future investigations (such as the safety review that has been announced). Therefore, I believe that this is not a simple semantic issue of language use, and if we are going to improve safety at large crowd events, using outdated  terms such as 'stampede' when things go wrong, will only get in the way of trying to create safer crowd experiences for everyone involved.

hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan in Mina, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Las Vegas plane fire and evacuation behaviour

The recent evacuation of British Airways flight BA2276 that suffered an engine fire as it began take-off at Las Vegas airport has caused some controversy, as illustrated in a BBC article about the incident. It focuses on the chorus of disapproval circling around social media (two examples are copied below) in response to reports that some passengers delayed their own and others' evacuation as they retrieved their hand luggage (in direct contradiction to the usual instructions for evacuation procedures). Such criticism has been countered by the Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg who found himself on this very flight, and seems to be excusing this behaviour because people 'panicked';  
'There were even some passengers who tried to get their luggage out of the overhead lockers. I’ve subsequently seen some criticism of them on Twitter but if you weren’t there, how do you know how you would have reacted? People do odd things when they panic'.
I think this incident raises some interesting issues about how people behave in emergencies. First of all, it's worth highlighting that not all passengers behaved in this way and took their hand luggage with them, so it was not action done by the group as a whole. For instance, a British passenger interviewed said that he followed instructions to leave his luggage on the plane (and reports that others also did the same) and also that he wasn't personally inconvenienced himself by others taking out their luggage (although he saw people outside the plane who had obviously done so). Furthermore, Jacob Steinberg also points out that others on the plane voiced their disapproval when it happened, so it was by no means a generally accepted norm of behaviour;
 "There were certainly shouts for people not to do it when they opened lockers"

Secondly, while people delaying their own (and possibly others') evacuation to get their luggage out during plane fires is not particularly sensible or co-operative behaviour, I would say it's not necessarily 'panic' either. This is because the classic view of 'panic' behaviour would imply that people would rush blindly to the closest exit with complete disregard for their possessions (or other people in their way) and there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this happened during this incident. Rather than 'panicking' I would suggest that focusing on retrieving one's belongings may be an example of the dissociative behaviour sometimes displayed by individuals in emergencies to help them ignore the seriousness of the situation- something suggested in a report I wrote with John Drury looking at mass emergency behaviour (Drury & Cocking, 2007, p.8).

Finally, such behaviour is not always seen in plane evacuations, and I think it's worth drawing some historical comparisons with more serious plane fires that have ended in tragedy. For instance, the Manchester airport disaster, on August 22nd 1985, killed 55 people after one of the plane's engines caught fire on take off. The air accident report concluded that most of the fatalities occurred because of delays in evacuation, since people who were not able to evacuate the plane immediately became quickly incapacitated by the toxic smoke that filled the cabin and died from smoke inhalation. However, the delays in evacuation were largely due to passengers' difficulties in being able to see their way through the smoke and also in getting the cabin doors open, and one of the surviving cabin staff reported that passengers were not carrying any 'noticeable or unacceptable hand baggage' p.43. Therefore,perhaps the less serious nature of the incident at Las Vegas airport (mercifully, everyone survived the evacuation of flight BA2276) meant that passengers felt less of a sense of urgency to evacuate than passengers would have during the Manchester airport fire, and so they thought it wouldn't be a problem if they paused to get their luggage .

I'm not saying that passengers delaying their own and others' exit during plane evacuations to retrieve their luggage isn't problematic (I'm getting on a plane tomorrow afternoon and will make sure my hand luggage stays put if we have to evacuate!), but I would resist attempts to describe such behaviour as 'panic'. This is because trying to excuse such behaviour as 'understandable in the circumstances because people can't help themselves' doesn't really help us tackle the problem. Perhaps such behaviour could be better explained in terms of a social dilemma, which is something I have looked at in previous blogs. This is because what may be perceived to be in the individual's short term interests (to evacuate with all one's possessions) may not be in the group's interests (as it could delay others evacuating). So I would say the crucial thing is to try much harder to convey the message to air travellers that it's in everyone's collective interest to act co-operatively during evacuations, and that delaying your exit to retrieve your duty free from the holdall above does not serve the collective good (and could end up risking your own life as well). Furthermore, if social norms develop where such behaviour is not considered appropriate and other passengers routinely express their disapproval to those who do it, we will hopefully see less of it in future plane evacuations. Failing that, I have seen some on-line comments suggesting that overhead lockers should be electronically locked until everyone has safely evacuated during emergencies!  

Drury, J. & Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. University of Sussex, Brighton 

Tweet by Stuart McAllister
Tweet expressing disapproval of some passengers' behaviour

Cartoon by airline pilot Chris Manno

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Shoreham disaster memorial service- a 'bridge over troubled water'

Today I attended the memorial service for the Shoreham air disaster on Shoreham Tollbridge, where there was a minute's silence at 13.20 to commemorate the time exactly one week ago that 11 people tragically lost their lives. Unsurprisingly, it was a sombre and moving experience, with hundreds of people packed on to the bridge itself to pay their respects, many more lining the banks of the river Adur, and some even attending in small boats in the river itself. In my last post I looked at how the bridge had become a focus-point for people wishing to leave floral tributes (it is one of the closest available viewpoints to where the accident happened on the A27). When I visited on the Monday after the tragedy to pay my respects there was already a significant number of bouquets covering a couple of spans of the bridge. However, today the whole of the north side of the bridge was covered in floral bouquets, football T-Shirts, photographs of the victims, toys, and various other tributes. There was even a wedding bouquet that had been left by a woman whose daughter had got married the same day of the disaster. As with my last visit there were also many touching written tributes to the victims and their loved ones, a selection of which are as follows;
"Nearly 1 week since the unfortunate news, where Shoreham Town felt really bruised... Family and friends should know, Shoreham Town is your comfort pillow'

'We may not have known you, but we will never forget you'

'It could have been anyone of us'

There were similar sentiments reported in the mainstream media, with the local Newspaper- the Argus reporting, 'Country to unite in silence for victims', and the BBC highlighting the sense of common identity and mutual support that has emerged from the tragedy, with the following quotes;
'We're all in this together'  

'The local community has come together, out of tragedy, there is some goodness that comes out of it'

Finally, there have also been social media tributes, with a Facebook page and many posts on Twitter to highlight the minute's silence for the victims that was observed both locally and nationally.

To me, these different forms of tributes illustrate how disasters can bring people together with a shared sense of identity and mutual support. Work that myself and others has done into social support during and after disasters (Cocking, 2013; Drury 2012) looked at how rather than being seen as a potential problem (as they often are in coverage of mass emergencies) crowds can serve as a kind of 'social cure' in that they can bring people together to support each other in the face of adversity. I wouldn't want to downplay the unimaginable sense of pain and loss that those affected by this tragedy must be feeling, but what I saw today on Shoreham Toll-bridge reinforces my belief in the healing potential that groups can have. This is because it felt today that I was not just in a physical mass- but that I was part of a united crowd of people with a shared purpose and sense of mutual support. I hope that by seeing so many people coming together in this way can provide some comfort for those affected by this tragedy. Or to use the words of one of the tributes I saw today, perhaps Shoreham Toll-bridge will become "a bridge called love"
NHS telephone help-lines have been set up that anyone affected by the disaster can call as follows

West Sussex: 01903 703548
Brighton & Hove: 0300 00 20 060
East Sussex: 0300 00 30 130

Crowds gathering on Shoreham Toll-Bridge for memorial service

Buglers sounded the 'Last Post' to begin the minute's silence 

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. CABI: Oxford, UK.
Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: a social identity model. In: Jetten, J., Haslam, C. and Haslam, S.A. (eds) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Shoreham air disaster and community support

It has been a sad weekend for Sussex, and the impact of the disaster at Shoreham air-show is still unfolding. Current news reports  are that 11 people are feared dead after a Hawker Hunter Jet crashed on the A27 dual carriageway while attempting to loop the loop during the air-show this weekend. The authorities initially feared that there could have been as many as 20 victims in total, but as I write this the Guardian is reporting that the plane has been removed from the site and no more bodies have been discovered underneath the wreckage.

Shoreham Tollbridge spans the river Adur and has become the centre for a growing floral tribute to the victims and their families (below are some photos taken earlier today by Guardian journalist Haroon Siddique). I visited this tribute today so that I could pay my own respects as I think it's important to remind oneself of the human costs involved when researching disasters and mass emergencies. It was quite a moving experience, and I was struck by the scale and content of the tributes left by the local community. In a previous blog I looked at the spontaneous social support that emerged after the death of the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. A similar process seems to be happening in response to the Shoreham disaster, although here we are seeing people coming together to commemorate those who were mainly ordinary members of the public caught up in a tragic accident (as opposed to a global celebrity with a loyal fan-base who was constantly in the media spotlight). Of the victims named so far, two are footballers from the local team Worthing United, and I saw some moving tributes to them on the bridge from their friends and family. The floral tribute was growing larger by the minute when I was there, as a constant stream of people arrived to pay their respects, and by the time I left, there were already a couple of hundred bouquets along with some football T-Shirts in memory of the local footballers.However, what I thought was also significant was that the majority of written tributes I saw were either from anonymous sources or from people  who didn't appear to know directly any of the victims, but still wanted to pay their respects as members of the local community, and a selection are copied below;  

' A community left numb'

'Terrible tragedy to happen to our county' 

'Shoreham weeps for all the victims'

'We didn't know you but we came because we care. We wanted you to know that you and your families are in our thoughts. Shoreham grieves for you and with you'

'To all who lost their lives I hope you find peace and to the families and friends my deepest sympathy and condolences. This has truly shocked our community'.

Finally, the one I thought was most touching was the tribute accompanying the drawing in the photo below which simply said;

'RIP from a little girl'

In work I did with John Drury on the 7/7 London bombings, we found that people can come together to co-operate during mass emergencies because a common identity emerged amongst crowd members in response to a shared threat,  and we argued that people would also support each other in the aftermath of such emergencies if they could maintain such a shared identity. What we felt was significant was that the vast majority of people caught up in the crowds during the 7/7 attacks were total strangers, but they still reported a strong sense of identity which emerged from their shared experience of adversity. I believe that the growing floral tributes I saw today are also evidence of the emergent community support and solidarity that can come from strangers and I hope this is of some comfort to those affected by this terrible accident.

The growing floral tribute on Shoreham Toll-bridge

'RIP from a little girl'

Friday, 31 July 2015

Sousse attack and crowd responses

The BBC's Panorama has produced a programme about the recent terrorist attack in Sousse, Tunisia, called 'Terror on the beach'. It is currently available on the BBC's iplayer in its entirety and there are also on-line extracts from interviews with survivors and witnesses as they describe the horrific chain of events that led to 38 innocent holidaymakers (30 of whom were British) being killed in the attack. These accounts are certainly pretty harrowing at times, but within the tales of terror and confusion, there also emerge some interesting examples of how people can spontaneously come together to help each other in such situations- not only amongst the holidaymakers targeted by the gunman, but also the heroism shown by local Tunisians in trying to protect them.

Survivor co-operation: 
The attack began when the gunman started shooting on the beach, and there was understandable fear and rapid flight as the full horror of what was going on dawned on those present. However, even in this horrific situation holidaymakers were showing concern for others, and this is clearly illustrated by the following quote from British tourist Tony Callaghan;

I said to my wife "Run back to the hotel. Take cover." But I couldn't go with her at that point because there were too many people who were just lazing on the loungers, just looking up, without any sense of urgency. I started shouting at the top of my voice for people to run. I was waving my arms around and I must have stayed there another minute or more.

This quote is also interesting because it shows that he stays behind and places himself at further risk to alert others of the danger (most of whom were presumably not close friends or family and possibly even complete strangers). Tony's wife, Christine then describes how other tourists comforted her as she left her husband to escape the beach;  

I was walking as fast as I could. My heart was beating so fast I was trembling. As I started to cry, a lady came towards me with her husband, asked if I was on my own, put her arms round me and gave me a hug.

Later on, as people fled the beach towards what they thought would be the safety of the hotel, the gunman pursued them and began attacking people inside, meaning that they had to quickly find cover in which to hide. A British holidaymaker there with her two teenage sons describes the situation as 'sheer panic', but if you explore her account in more detail, interesting nuances in her account emerge that I think show the general co-operation that was going on. Sam (the mother) and Tom (her son) describe what happened when they fled into the toilets and were separated from her other son Callum;

Sam: We heard this other girl who followed us in there and she was crying in the toilet next door. I was saying: "Please be quiet." We didn't know if he was still in the corridor or if there were more of them. So we brought her into the toilet and she passed out. We had to sit her on the toilet and bring her round.
She had a massive piece of shrapnel in her leg. I said to her: "I'm going to have to take this out if I'm going to stop the bleeding." So she said OK, and I pulled it out and packed her leg with tissue paper, and used my top to tie it round to try and stop the bleeding. Then I did the same with my mum's leg.
I felt so sick. I thought: "This is it. We're not going to survive this." I didn't even know if my youngest son was OK. We were in sheer panic. Luckily we had our mobiles with us. The lady of the family that had Callum - they'd taken him and barricaded themselves in - rang me and said: "We've got Callum."

So, I think these accounts show quite well how even in life-threatening emergencies, people will help and comfort those around them, even if they are separated from their loved ones and/or amongst strangers. This supports the research I did with John Drury into mass emergencies, such as the July 7th 2005 London bombings (Drury et al, 2009 a&b), where we argued that a form of collective resilience emerged amongst survivors that encouraged co-operative behaviour (as opposed to selfish and/or 'panicked' behaviour) while they waited for outside help from the emergency services. It's not that everyone necessarily becomes super-heroes in these situations, it's more that general co-operative norms emerge that mean that simple acts of co-operation (or just comforting others in distress) become more possible precisely because people tend to remain calm (despite the understandable fear they may be experiencing), and that such co-operation would be much more difficult if there was mass 'panic' instead.

Tourists comfort each other in the aftermath of the Sousse attack

Locals as 'zero-responders':
It was not just tourists that co-operated with each other, and there were also numerous reports of local Tunisians shielding tourists from danger, helping victims, and even confronting the gunman to try and stop his murderous rampage. For instance, two locals working on the beach initially tried to reason with the gunman;

We said: "Please stop shooting." He didn't listen to us. He just kept shooting. He didn't care.

They then helped evacuate some tourists from the beach in their boat (other tourists were also helped to hide in nearby shops by the owners) and then joined a growing group of locals who began to confront the gunman when it became apparent that he was initially only targeting tourists (although he later began shooting at locals and the police shortly before being killed in the final fire-fight). This willingness to confront the gunman manifested itself in two stages: first they formed a human chain along the beach to prevent him getting close to other tourists (as captured in the photo below), and then began actively pursuing him. This exchange, shows how two locals confronted one of the first policemen on the scene who was initially reluctant to engage the gunman (Rezgui);
When I saw the tourist policeman, I said to him: "Why aren't you shooting the terrorist?" He said to me: "I don't have a bulletproof vest."
I told him: "I've got no vest, but I'm going." He said: "It's your risk if you die." I said: "OK, no problem." The police were scared. One said: "If he sees me with a police T-shirt, he will shoot me." So he rolled up the T-shirt in his hand and he ran with the people. A young Tunisian man in red shorts seized a gun from an unwilling policeman and headed off to try to fire it at Rezgui. He missed him and the gun jammed after two shots.

In a previous post about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, I looked at the concept of 'zero-responders' which has been developed in recognition of evidence (eg Cole et al, 2011) that uninjured survivors and bystanders at major incidents are often able to spontaneously co-operate to provide first aid and evacuate survivors before outside help from first responders arrives. What is also particularly significant here, is that in this situation a 'zero-responder' seems more willing to take action than the policeman himself, which aptly illustrates the potential for 'zero-responders' to spontaneously take the initiative, especially in the face of hesitation from more official emergency responders  

Tunisians form a human chain and pursue the gunman along the beach


I have felt a connection with Sousse and the people of Tunisia in general ever since I was there during the 2011 Jasmine revolution and it was my experiences there that inspired me to start writing a blog in the first place. Most notably, I was struck by their hospitality and caring attitude towards tourists. For instance, we witnessed a few protests while we were there and even got caught up in a riot where we had to scatter down back streets with locals, as there was a real fear that the police were going to open fire on the crowd. However, at no point did we feel threatened by the people there and other crowd members were talking to us and looking out for us as we fled. I find it desperately sad that such an atrocity could happen in Sousse, and feel not only for the victims and their families, but also the local Tunisians whose livelihoods depend on tourism and are presumably already suffering a collapse in the numbers of tourists visiting Tunisia. However, I hope that this post has shown that the sorrow and trauma brought about by the murderous actions of one person can perhaps be countered in some small way by the knowledge that hundreds (if not thousands) of others responded to this horror with the kindness and compassion that human beings often display to each other during mass emergencies. 

Flowers laid on Marhaba beach

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. (2009a). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology; 48, 487-506.

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

Friday, 24 July 2015

Amy Winehouse's death & spontaneous social support

I went to see the ‎Amy Winehouse‬ film last night on the anniversary of her death on 23/rd July 2011. It has been accused by some critics of being little better than the paparazzi that hounded her to her death, and it certainly is uncomfortable viewing at times (especially when she crashes & burns live on stage in Belgrade shortly before her death in 2011). I think it also highlights how a very talented (but also very vulnerable) singer/songwriter descended on a self-destructive downward spiral of alcohol and drugs compounded by her suffering from bulimia that ended in her untimely death at the age of 27. 

However, I think the grass-roots reaction to her death also illustrates the positive power that crowds  can have. I was in Camden a couple of days after she died & visited the shrine to Amy that had spontaneously developed outside her flat. It was quite a solemn and sad experience, but  what I also found striking was how her fans and other interested passers-by had come together to mark her tragic death, and I believe this shows the power that groups can have to support each other in times of adversity. This fits with work that I and others have done (Cocking, 2013; Drury et al, 2011) that rather than being a potential problem (as they are often portrayed in social discourse) crowds and groups in general can be a source of mutual support, or a kind of 'social cure'.  

Photos of the memorial outside Amy's flat, Camden July 2011

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. CABI: Oxford, UK.
Drury, J. (2011). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: a social identity model. In: Jetten, J., Haslam, C. and Haslam, S.A. (eds) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Nepal earthquake and 'panic'

The international community is now beginning to respond to the devastating earthquake in Nepal at the weekend. So far nearly 4000 people have been killed and over 6500 injured, with 4 million affected (although these casualty figures will probably rise as more remote areas are reached and the true scale of the damage is discovered). The media focus seems to be rightly shifting to the international aid response, and this is a welcome development, as not only are there thousands of people in desperate need in an already impoverished region, but again I would argue that the initial media reports of 'panic' are yet again not supported by events on the ground.

Media expectation of 'panic'
On 27/4/15, Radio 4's Today  programme included an interview with a British PhD student based in Nepal (interview begins about 2:14:40 into the programme). In it he explicitly rejected the notion when asked by the interviewer if there was 'panic' & instead focussed on how people cooperated with each other;
'while people were scared, I wouldn't necessarily call it panic... people were trying to help whenever they saw people in need'
This is supported by the image below of people helping clear rubble & rescue survivors in Kathmandu  and the general lack of police or military uniforms in the photo (I can only see one person wearing camouflage clothing) leads me to believe that there was general cooperation amongst bystanders in the aftermath of the earthquake- a concept known as 'zero-responders', that I have looked at in previous  blog posts.

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015

'Panic' or evacuation?
Another more specific way in which panic has been used, also needs picking apart, as again I don't think it stands up to scrutiny. For example, there have been media descriptions of people 'panicking' as they fled buildings during the aftershocks, and there is quite an evocative video clip article, where BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt is caught in the middle of an aftershock and people fleeing buildings for open ground are clearly visible. However, he also rightly points out that 'earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do'. This is a basic tenet of safe evacuation behaviour during earthquakes, and seeing that the area where the earthquake happened is prone to such tremors, I would imagine that the local residents are familiar with such procedures. Therefore, far from being irrational 'panic', I would say that evacuating already weakened buildings during an aftershock is an example of sensible evacuation behaviour, possibly something that locals had learnt from previous education as to what is the safest behaviour in earthquakes. Another example of this is the photograph below of people evacuating a building in Lucknow, northern India, which is near the border with Nepal. Within the story that accompanies this picture is the following quote;
'Panic gripped people who came out of their houses, buildings, hospitals and shopping complexes to take shelter in open as they felt earthquake tremors'
However, from a more detailed look at the picture, I can't see expressions of fear on anyone's faces (some even appear to be smiling), and there doesn't seem to be any running or pushing that might be associated with a 'panicked' evacuation.

The Disasters and Emergency Committee has now set up an appeal for donations, and hopefully international aid will soon reach those affected by this awful tragedy. I am also relieved that media descriptions of 'panicked' reactions to the earthquake now seem to be receding, but I do wish that they wouldn't immediately jump into using the term, as it rarely matches up with people's actual behaviour and just perpetuates the myths about crowd behaviour that I and other colleagues in this field seem to spend so much time trying to unpick.    

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Aston Villa pitch invasion & moral panics

A recent FA cup Quarter final tie saw a pitch invasion by Aston Villa fans, as their team beat local rivals West Bromwich Albion by 2-0 at home, prompting media reports of a return to the 'dark ages' of the 1970s and 80s when pitch invasions and/or football related 'disorder' were common place. However, I would suggest that  closer examination of what seems to have happened during this incident shows such fears to be premature and somewhat alarmist. Furthermore, I would also argue that the reactions by match commentators and the general tone of media reporting of this incident reflect what I think is an ongoing moral panic not only about pitch invasions at football matches, but also of crowds in general (especially football crowds).

Historical contexts:
Pitch invasions have a long history at UK football matches (but are rarer these days) and were often associated with disorder. However, they don't always involve fighting between rival fans, and are more likely to be a celebratory response by fans to their team winning, and any interactions with rival fans are usually confined to ritualised behaviours (such as gesticulation, chanting, etc) rather than than overt physical aggression (see Geoff Pearson's work for detailed studies of football fans' behaviour & their treatment). However, football authorities (such as the FA and the Police) have tended to take a very dim view of such collective expressions  of celebration, and they often respond to them in a fairly robust way (see photo below of the police response at Villa Park).While they are technically illegal under the 1991 Football Offences Act, there are rarely enough stewards/ police to stop a determined pitch invasion (let alone arrest all those who take part in one!), and prevention usually relies on social pressure, with clubs, players, and commentators all queuing up to criticise such incidents in their aftermath- as happened this weekend . 

Aston Villa v West Brom

Police face the crowd at Villa Park

Villa Park pitch invasion:
This particular game was perhaps likely to inspire strong emotions, seeing as Aston Villa and West Bromwich are local rivals from Birmingham, with their grounds less than five miles from each other. So, during stoppage time (and perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly),  the first of two pitch invasions by Aston Villa fans began, and prompted the following reaction from the match commentator Mark Lawrenson;
Why would you do this? You're winning, absolutely stupid. Loads of villages have lost their idiots tonight. Absolutely bonkers. 
Strong words, indeed. But in the televised footage, this first invasion appears to involve no more than 100 fans at at most, and the vast majority of fans seem to stay in the stands, with some booing those on pitch & gesticulating for them to get off- presumably because if the match had been abandoned at that point (with Aston Villa 2-0 up and very likely to win), the match would have had to have been re-played with no guarantee of them winning again. However, the second pitch invasion happened after the final whistle had gone, (meaning that Aston Villa were now through to the semi-finals), and involved many more Aston Villa fans (within a few seconds the pitch is full & large sections of the stands are now empty), suggesting that this second action was now broadly supported by the fans. The mood of the fans seems celebratory (rather than aggressive), and many of them surround the Aston Villa players to congratulate them and/or take their photos. Some of their behaviour may have been a little over-exuberant, but I can't see any footage that makes me think that anyone was under serious threat from the crowd (there's a Tweet that zooms in on footage of the assistant referee furiously running away as the pitch invasion happens, but the crowd appears to ignore him). However, the alarmist media reporting continued, as illustrated in how the BBC presented their interviews with Aston players afterwards. For instance, the following extract with goalscorer Fabian Delph was highlighted;
It was dangerous. Someone tried to take my boot off. People tried to kiss me and were biting me. It was scary
On its own, this suggests quite a scary situation, but if you go to the video footage where the quote comes from, you can see that Fabian laughs when he describes this incident, and doesn't seem to have been adversely affected by the experience- so it doesn't seem so serious when viewed less selectively in a wider context. 
Aston Villa v West Brom

Moral panics & their tragic consequences?
Finally, there are potentially deeper issues involved with this apparent moral panic over pitch invasions, with the most obvious, being that of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where 96 fans were fatally crushed against metal fences designed to prevent a pitch invasion. In a previous post on Hillsborough , I highlighted the tragic irony raised by the Taylor Report into the disaster, that previous to Hillsborough, no one had ever died during a pitch invasion at UK football matches, but on 15/4/1989, 96 fans died in preventing a fictitious pitch invasion that never happened. UK football stadium design and safety procedures have come a long way since Hillsborough and such tragedies are thankfully very unlikely to happen again.  However, I worry that reports of pitch invasions that emphasise the 'irrationality' or even 'madness' of those involved, not only obscures accurate exploration of what actually happens, but also risks creating the space where irrationalist narratives of crowds could re-emerge into popular social discourse.
Police cordon during the Hillsborough disaster


Canter, D, Comber, M & Uzzell, D (1989) Football in its place: An environmental Psychology of Football grounds. Routledge: London, UK

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Shanghai crowd crush tragedy

New Year celebrations in Shanghai, China have ended in tragedy, with 36 dead and nearly 50 injured. It seems there was a fatal crowd crush about 20 mins before midnight, according to media reports. There has also been speculation in some coverage that the tragedy happened when people rushed forward to pick up fake money being thrown from the balcony of a bar into the crowd. However, I have seen this account disputed by others on social media, claiming instead that the crushing happened at a different location to the bar, and a BBC report also argues that the authorities in Shanghai were not adequately prepared for the size of the crowds on Shanghai's waterfront. I also saw an interview with a survivor in hospital who reported that people moving in different directions through the highly packed crowds caused crushing problems. So, I would suggest that crowd management failings may have been a more likely cause of the disaster. We shall have to see if more information emerges about this tragedy that helps paint a clearer picture of what actually happened, but yet again, the media's default response after tragedies such as these seems to be to blame the victims of crowd disasters rather than the authorities responsible for their safe management.

The BBC coverage quotes a photographer from the US who paints a bleak picture of people's behaviour;
"Nobody seemed to be in control and people were crying. It was one of those times when you see the worst in people."
However, no further description is given of any actual examples of what anyone was doing that illustrates 'the worst in people', and the very next quote used from another witness which describes spontaneous cooperation in the crowd appears to contradict this assertion anyway;
"Lots of people spontaneously linked hands to block the crowds, so the injured had space to settle down, and to allow a clear passage for ambulances,"

As I have argued in previous blogs, when disasters such as these happen, the term 'stampede' is almost always used uncritically by the media coverage to describe events, with all its negative connotations about crowd behaviour in such incidents- for instance that people are unthinking and/or selfish and trample over victims in their efforts to flee danger (for more details on why the term 'stampede' is problematic, see John Drury's excellent blog on the topic). Tweets I have seen from the crowd modelling expert Keith Still argue that the tragedy appears to have been caused by a Pressure Wave in the crowd resulting from a dangerous (but usually entirely avoidable) build up of crowd density, and he highlights that previous analyses of crowd disasters (e.g. Fruin, 1993) have concluded that;
'Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the "trampling" reported by the news media' 
Another study of a fatal crowd crush at a concert by the Who in the US in 1979 (Johnson 1987), found that survivors tried to help others that fell over, (rather than deliberately trampling them underfoot) and if cooperation did not happen, it was because people were physically unable to do so due to crowd density pressures. If trampling does occur, it is rare, and usually because of a domino effect in highly packed crowds (e.g. if someone falls over the physical pressure of the crowd can force others to fall on top of them)- not because people are 'stampeding' blindly without concern for others as they flee danger.   

Therefore, yet again I find myself repeating my call that we should stop using the term 'stampede' to describe tragedies such as the one seen in Shanghai, as it is not helpful in getting to the truth about what happens and may even distract from the apportion of responsibility for the tragedy, if as I suspect, it eventually turns out that crowd mismanagement was the cause. Such disasters are not inevitable and it is usually possible to prevent them occurring, providing there is adequate crowd safety management planning beforehand, and speedy responses are put in place to prevent crowd density reaching dangerous levels.  

Since I wrote the post above, the BBC have reported that Shanghai police now deny that fake money being thrown from a balcony was the cause of the tragedy, as this happened after the crush occurred (and the BBC has also largely removed references to 'stampede' in its coverage, and are now using the term 'crush' instead). Therefore, it seems increasingly likely that poor crowd management was instead responsible, and the casualties seemed to have resulted from dangerous crowding levels causing a wave of people to topple down a flight of stairs leading to a viewing platform. The Chinese President has ordered an investigation to examine whether there were enough police on duty to safely manage the crowds.

Fruin, J (1993) The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters. Originally presented at the First International Conference on Engineering for Crowd Safety, London, England, March 1993. Elsevier Science Publishers B.B. ©.

Johnson (1987) Panic at “The Who Concert Stampede”: An Empirical Assessment. Social Problems, 34 (4) 362-73