Crowd plus emergency equals mass panic, or so urban myths and Hollywood films would have us believe. The reality, recognised by social psychology for some time, is that people in crowds often behave in remarkably cooperative and selfless ways. A new study by John Drury and colleagues suggests that this kind of collaborative behaviour emerges when people in a crowd acquire a shared identity. And contrary to the "mass panic" perspective, an emergency can be the very catalyst that brings people together.
If you've ever been on an underground train that gets stranded mid-tunnel, or on an aeroplane that's overstayed its welcome on a runway, you might have glimpsed a mild version of this feeling of a shared fate. With the temperature rising and information lacking, you and your fellow passengers stop feeling like strangers and start to feel united in your predicament.
Drury and his colleagues asked 21 survivors of mass emergencies about these feelings of unity and about how much helping behaviour and orderliness they'd witnessed. Between them, the participants had been caught up in eleven emergency situations including the crush at Hillsborough, the Harrods bomb of 1983, and the over-crowding at the Fatboy Slim beach party in 2002.
Twelve of the disaster victims described feelings of unity among the crowd, whereas nine of them said it was more a case of everyone for themselves. In turn, the participants who said their crowd was united reported experiencing a sense of a shared fate; reported seeing and experiencing more examples of people helping others, including strangers; and they also reported more signs of orderliness such as queuing to escape.
"An aggregate of individuals becomes and acts as a psychological crowd when there is a cognitive redefinition of the self from a personal to a social identity," the researchers said. "...[W]e would suggest that in liberating us from the restrictions of individuality the psychological crowd is a crucial adaptive resource for survival in mass emergencies and disasters."
The authors did also caution that their study has a number of serious limitations. Other survivors, less willing to talk than the current participants, might have had a different story to tell. Also, we know that human memory is extremely unreliable at the best of times, and some of the events described here had happened over two decades earlier.
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 DOI: 10.1348/014466608X357893