Panic in Disasters: Prevalence and Causes

This article discuses the common presumption about public panic in disasters, suggesting instead that panic is rarely observed, or that rational behaviour can be misinterpreted as panic. The belief that panic will occur may lead to potentially damaging decisions such as withholding of information by the authorities. Panic is likely to be fuelled to a greater extent by rumour filling an information vacuum, than by detailed and clear information from a trusted source.

A common assumption is that when a disaster occurs (potential) victims will panic and engage in any behaviour, often irrational, which they deem necessary in the moment to facilitate their escape. This assumption is perpetuated not only through media reports, but is also to be found in cultural media, such as film.

Concerns about public panic can lead to actions by authorities such as withholding information or delaying the implementation of evacuation procedures. For example, the Presidential Commission on Three Mile Island learned that the authorities had hesitated to call evacuations due to these fears (Fischer, 1998).

It has also been suggested that a CBRN incident would involve a number of elements that could be conducive to overwhelming anxiety and subsequent panic (Alexander & Klein, 2003). These include the novelty of the weapon, uncertainty about who is at risk, and the perception of a short interval in which escape could prevent infection (Norwood, 2001). Another element could be the deployment and high visibility of a number of personnel in chemical-biological protective clothing (Alexander & Klein, 2003; Moscrop, 2001). See article on psychological effects of wearing protective clothing in disaster.

Prevalence of panic in disaster

However, reports in the disaster literature suggest that panic is rare. Historical research into natural and technological disasters, and analyses of behaviour on September 11th, 2001, as well as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, suggest that effective and adaptive collective action and coping mechanisms generally occur (Durodie & Wessely, 2002; Johnson, Feinberg, & Johnson, 1994). Calm and reasonable behaviour was also the rule during the Three Mile Island Incident (M. J. Hall, Norwood, Ursano, Fullerton, & Levinson, 2002) and following the chemical explosion at Flixborough (Explosion Nypro (UK) Ltd. Chemical Factory Flixborough, 1974).


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It has also been suggested that what is sometimes described as panic is in fact people acting rationally, but doing what the authorities don’t want or expect them to do, or else not doing what the authorities do want or expect them to do (Norwood, 2003). For example, the tendency for many more individuals to present at health services than are actually infected could be seen as panic, but equally as a rational response to possible infection. See article on Mass Psychogenic Illness.

This perspective on panic is crucial because the assumption that people panic or become irrational following an incident can have negative consequences. Authorities may provide inaccurate information or unfounded reassurances motivated by a wish to calm the public, and may miss opportunities to capitalize on the resourcefulness of non-professionals and civic organizations (M. J. Hall, Norwood, Ursano, Fullerton, & Levinson, 2002). See article on the public as first responders.

However, there have been some reports of public panic in response to potential and actual CBRN disasters, most notably in the aftermath of the earthquake at Surat, India in September 1994 (noted earlier, p. 14). In one night, an avoidable exodus of 600,000 people, including local doctors, fled Surat fearing an outbreak of pneumonic plague. (Ramalingaswami, 2001). Chaos reigned and rumours spread rapidly. The people of Delhi, some 1200km from Surat also showed signs of panic.

The spreading of rumours leading to panic was also evident, although to a lesser extent, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 (Horner, 1986). However, common to both these incidents was the lack of accurate information from the authorities to the public (Ramalingaswami, 2001; Renn, 1990). This suggests that a primary concern of the authorities should be to fill the information vacuum before rumours, myths, misinformation, and ultimately hoaxes can take their course. Rapid, timely, clear, and repeated facts and data need to be at hand and presented by trusted sources, appropriate to relevant communities (Clark, 2003; Durodie & Wessely, 2002). See article on Communication with the public.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the literature suggest that what the public does, both individually and collectively in the event of a disaster may make the greatest difference to the ultimate outcome (Glass, 2001). The evidence from the disaster literature is mainly positive, pointing to the fact that panic is rare. The appearance of panic may be beneficial and involves genuine fear, immediate action (e.g. flight) and is usually based on a realistic assessment of events (R. Shaw, Summer 1999). Rather than being irrational, it can be a rational response to a situation.

Moreover, panic is much less likely if clear, accurate and timely information is passed to the public. Of course, it is not known exactly how the public will react to an unprecedented CBRN incident, but evidence from previous disasters suggests that mass panic does not generally occur in disasters.

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