Don’t (use the term) ’panic’, say psychologists

Don’t (use the term) ’panic’, say psychologists

New research from the universities of Sussex and Brighton looks at popular representations of crowd behaviour in disasters that are often wrongly characterised as ‘panic’.

The study suggests that the term is too loaded and does not accurately describe what actually happens in such situations.

The findings follow a BBC ‘Panorama’ investigation, broadcast on Monday (20 May), that revealed how police, politicians, lawyers and judges all played a part in burying the truth about Britain’s worst football disaster, at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989.

Dr John Drury , Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Sussex, and Dr Chris Cocking, formerly at Sussex and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, analysed four survivors’ accounts of the incident - a crush of supporters in the stands during an FA Cup match that resulted in the deaths of 96 people and injuries to 766 others.

The incident has since been blamed primarily on crowd-management strategies that viewed policing football matches as a public-order problem rather than a public-safety issue.

The researchers ed four Liverpool fans who had been caught up in the crush and investigated how they used the term ‘panic’. While the word was used frequently, more detailed analysis showed that their accounts did not match the classic criteria for ‘mass panic’, i.e. uncontrolled emotion and selfish behaviour.

The participants also referred to ‘orderly’ behaviour, and co-operation, even when the threat of death was present.

Dr Cocking said: “Participants used ‘panic’ not only to describe fear and distress but also to apportion culpability towards the actions of the police who they considered responsible for the tragedy. This shows the complexity and possible inconsistencies in usage of the term.

“We concluded that ‘panic’ should not be used to describe behaviour in emergencies, as it is too loaded a term and does not accurately describe what actually happens in such situations. Alternative terms that recognise survivors’ potential collective resilience should be used instead.”

The study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology .

Posted on behalf of: School of Psychology
Last updated: Thursday, 23 May 2013


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