--> Gill Blog: The Psychology of Panic

Gill Blog

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Psychology of Panic

Barely three months after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit southeast Asia, an 8.7 magnitude earthquake hit Indonesia again this past Monday. The hardest hit area was the island of Nias. The reaction to this event was predictable - there were widespread reports of panic all in an effort to get to higher ground. This panic led to accidents, injury and chaos.

This invariably leads us to wonder what the impact of panic must be in disaster zones, and how great a risk panic actually is - a topic that would be of particular interest to emergency responders and business continuity planners. I heard a very thought provoking segment this past Wednesday on CBC Radio's The Current, where this topic was discussed at length. The first guest on the show was Charles Figley from the Traumatology Institute at The Florida State University (my alma mater) who offered some very interesting insight. Some of the key points included:

  • the overlapping nature of these massive events increased the degree of reaction; however, panic is an overreaction to irrational beliefs - in this case, running to higher ground was entirely rational
  • Florida's experience with hurricanes in 2004 provided a very telling example of how the mind becomes more rational with more experience; when the second hurricane struck in Florida, there was the same degree of panic, however, the response became more rational with successive hurricanes (there were four in total)(Figley surmised that this may have largely been influenced by fatigue)
  • Fright overrides any kind of rational thought or appropriate behavior
  • The effects of panic can make a crisis substantially worse; in this regard, emergency managers are trained to be directive, competent and compassionate
  • Panic can be reduced by keeping emergency response policies as simple as possible
A different perspective on this discussion was offered by Henry Fischer, who is the director of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University. Some of the key points he discussed included:

  • the response of locals in Indonesia to the second earthquake was entirely rational
  • True panic is associated with a circumstance where a person believes they may have an opportunity to escape, but the window to do so is small - this is the cause of stampede behavior
  • Panic is an overused term, and its misuse can directly result in creating bad emergency management or business continuity policy
  • The true first responders in an incident are those who survive the initial impact of an incident and lend their assistance
You can hear the entire segment by clicking on this link.