Support crowds in their response to threats

Support crowds in their response to threats

In recent years, largely due to terrorist attacks, the United Kingdom has had to deal with multiple false alarm incidents, in which crowds fled, with all the consequences to their safety and health. Prof. John Drury and his team* analysed these incidents. They present seven recommendations for professionals on how to better enable crowds to respond adequately to a (perceived) threat.

An interdisciplinary research team from different universities, led by Professor John Drury, released an interesting publication in March 2023, entitled “Public behaviour in response to perceived hostile threats”. The report was produced in reaction to the scale and frequency of false alarm incidents in the UK between 2010 and 2019, resulting in crowds fleeing, which led to injuries and even deaths. The research report uses new scientific evidence, combined with existing knowledge about crowd behaviours in response to threats, as the basis for practical recommendations for professionals working in the field of emergency response and crisis management.

1: Integrate the psychological knowledge about public behaviour in crisis situations in training courses

It is known that people often cooperate and support each other during crisis situations and that competitive behaviour is less common. Much of the cooperation and support observed during crisis situations can be related to a shared social identity. These crucial insights should form the basis for dealing with disturbances and incidents. In addition, it is important to recognize that fleeing in response to a false alarm is not necessarily irrational, since there have indeed been several awful attacks.

Procedures and processes put in place to increase collective resilience in society should be based on the most up-to-date theories and facts about mass psychology. One way to achieve this, according to the researchers, is to incorporate the key points of this research report into training sessions.

2: Inform crowds and promote public awareness where there is an increased likelihood of threat

Withholding information from the general public (“in case they panic”) has been strongly criticized on several fronts. In the event of a fire, evidence shows that a group of threatened people flees more efficiently when it is told specifically where and what the threat is; giving that type of information works better than a simple fire alarm. In a range of crisis situations, withholding information can seriously damage relations with authorities, affecting people’s self-confidence and the effectiveness of their actions in an emergency. Drury and his team argue that there is no reason to think that informing the public or conducting awareness campaigns about terrorism or other threats will go awry; the wider literature even suggests that such public information strategies are useful.

3: Build long-term relationships with citizens to gain trust and influence in emergency preparedness

The relationship between citizens and the source of information is crucial to determine whether information is trusted and internalized. People will be more convinced by messages from people they identify with than by messages from people who are seen as other. Therefore, those responsible for crisis preparedness must prioritize relationships – and especially shared social identity – with the community as part of their communication. One way to increase this shared social identity is to understand each other’s norms and values, involve them in decisions and show that they are trusted.

4: Use unifying language and supportive forms of communication to strengthen unity both within the crowd and between the crowd and the authorities

Can the authorities and aid workers do anything to promote or strengthen a sense of unity? A recommendation is to use collective words when communicating with crowds (e.g. ‘dear festival goers’ instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen’). If a particular group is involved, use whatever name the group uses for itself (e.g. fans of a particular music group, “Directioners” for fans of One Direction), to reinforce the collective identity. To create or reinforce a shared identity between the public and the authorities, simple techniques include referring to “us” and “we” (rather than just “you”). In addition, communication that is perceived as helpful, open, and respectful can foster a bond between the two parties.

5: Authorities and responders should approach their responses to potential hostile threats reflexively, by thinking about how their actions may be perceived by the crowd and influence (positively and negatively) their behaviour;

During (alleged) hostile threats and other hazardous events, the behaviour of crowds is to a significant degree a function of the perceived legitimacy of the behaviour of other groups. More generally, the interpretation given by the crowd to the actions of the police and other responders will influence how they think, feel and act. Therefore, authorities and responders need to understand that the way they respond to an incident has a direct impact on the concerns and behaviour of the crowd. Also, how the crowd reacts to the ‘threat’ itself.

6: Prioritize informative and actionable risk and crisis communications over emotional reassurance messages

People involved in false alarm incidents investigated in this research report were often described as anxious and distressed, and the word ‘panic’ was often used to describe the emotional state of these people during these incidents. Often the advice given to citizens or to crowds at an event both before and during a crisis is about their emotions, or about how they should feel: ‘keep calm’, ‘don’t panic’. A crowd needs practical information in an emergency; this will help them make informed decisions, but will also meet the emotional needs and make them feel less upset.

7: Provide first aid resources that enable people in public places to act more effectively as Zero Responders

The last recommendation is to place first aid equipment in ‘vulnerable’ busy locations, such as train stations, for people to use. We call these civilian aid workers Zero Responders. They will probably be able to share information about the threat with each other and the authorities/responders.

John Drury, lead author of this research report, will go through these and many other insights during his Masterclass “Crowd Psychology for Crowd Safety Management”, which takes place on 14 and 15 September 2023 in Utrecht, The Netherlands. More information on the course here.

Do you want to read the entire research report on crowd behaviour in the face of perceived threats?  Click on this link.

*”Public behaviour in response to perceived hostile threats” (University of Sussex, March 2023)

This briefing document is part of the ESRC-funded project ‘Perceived threats and “stampedes”: a relational model of collective fear responses’ (project reference ES/T007249/1). The document was written by John Drury (Principal Investigator, University of Sussex), Silvia Arias (Postdoctoral Researcher, Lund University), Terry Au-Yeung (Postdoctoral Researcher, Keele University), Dermot Barr (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sussex and Liverpool John Moores University), Linda Bell (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sussex), Toby Butler (Consultant, Royal Holloway University of London), Holly Carter (Co-Investigator, UK Health Security Agency), Sanj Choudhury (Research Support Assistant, University of Sussex), Joakim Eriksson (Postdoctoral Researcher, Lund University), Fergus Neville (Co-Investigator, University of St Andrews), Matt Radburn (Postdoctoral Researcher, Keele University), Richard Philpot (Research Associate, Lancaster University), Stephen Reicher (Co-Investigator, University of St Andrews), Enrico Ronchi (Co-Investigator, Lund University), Clifford Stott (Co-Investigator, Keele University), Maïka Telga (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of St Andrews), and Anne Templeton (Co-Investigator, Edinburgh University).

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