WASHINGTON, DC -- Group panic and irrational behavior did not occur at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Instead the event created a sense of "we-ness" among those threatened, says Rutgers University sociology professor Lee Clarke. In his article, "Panic: Myth or Reality?", in the fall 2002 edition of Contexts magazine, he explains that 50 years of evidence on disasters and extreme situations shows that panic is rare, even when people feel "excessive fear."
Panic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an "excessive feeling of alarm or fear…leading to extravagant or injudicious efforts" to secure personal safety. Panic usually refers to desperate acts of self-preservation that have the contrary effect of harming self and/or others. People escaping from the destruction of the World Trade Center didn't act like that; nor did they disregard the needs of others around them. Instead, they behaved civilly and cooperatively. As Clarke explains, "We now know that almost everyone … survived if they were below the floors where the airplanes struck the buildings. That is in large measure because people did not become hysterical but instead facilitated a successful evacuation." Clarke maintains that human nature in disasters is more a function of social factors than individual self-interest; Hollywood's disaster movies show people running wildly from catastrophe, knocking over their own grandmothers to save themselves. "That's dead wrong," he says.
Clarke says that part of the panic myth is that people misinterpret their own, and others', behavior as panic. "What they are usually reporting, though, are feelings of fear and not panic-stricken behavior." He explains that the myth provides authorities (i.e., decision-makers, politicians, and administrators) with an easy explanation for complex events. Even when panic does happen--say at soccer matches--focusing on it usually detracts attention from more important factors such as official misconduct or police over-reaction. In addition, by using pacifying speech (e.g., "Everything is under control…") to allay public fear and hiding information from the public, spokespersons cultivate distrust at a time when nothing could be more important to public safety than trust of the information that authorities disseminate.
Citing three disasters in which panicky behavior would be expected, Clarke shows that in dangerous situations (e.g., in a plane crash, a fire in a crowded hotel), people don't usually turn against their neighbors or forget moral commitments. People rarely lose control. The same message rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
"The rules of behavior in extreme situations," says Clarke, "are not much different from rules of ordinary life." As in normal situations, the rule is for people to help those next to them before they help themselves. Disasters are special situations but they are still social ones, and people generally follow community expectations. Furthermore, people don't usually lose their sense of community, even when every building has been destroyed. "The more consistent pattern in disasters is that people connect in the aftermath and work to rebuild their physical and cultural environments."
Clarke hopes that by dispelling the myth of hysteria or panic in cases of emergency, politicians and corporate managers will stop trying to pacify or placate the public during or after disasters. This sort of response to a mishap puts little trust in the public when there is bad news and it serves to deflect attention from more important issues. People, he says, usually respond well to bad news, if they see officials as trustworthy. Officials have to earn that trust by being straightforward about what they know and what they don't know.
Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, can be found at http://www.contextsmagazine.org/.
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.
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