Letter from Santiago: Disaster central

I am currently in Santiago, Chile, meeting with colleagues at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile to discuss disaster research. Chile is an obvious place for such research, since it regularly suffers from a variety of natural disasters. In the last year there have been two volcano eruptions, an earthquake, flooding and landslides as well as a massive fire at Valparaíso which destroyed over two thousand homes.

I’ve been hearing about research which is investigating why it is that, in disasters, as well as many useful contributions people also donate a lot of things that survivors do not need. Some examples mentioned included a belt buckle, make-up, flags, and a wedding dress. Sorting through the donations to identify the useful contributions can be a lot of work for someone, and my colleagues’ research aims to help understand how to make the best of the inevitable and welcome desire to help that is associated with emergencies and disasters so it can contribute to more effective disaster recovery.

While this Chilean research focuses on help given by people outside the disaster, my own work has focusesd on the behaviour of survivors themselves. Here are the key points, in a blogpost-sized summary.

One of the features of crowd behaviour in mass emergencies that warranted explanation was the way that people who were strangers only minutes before could display forms of social support and mutual aid normally associated with groups where there was a history of solidarity – as took place for example among survivors of the July 7th 2005 London bombings. People took risks to help others. They delayed their exit to tie tourniquets. They went out of their way to share bottles of water and provide a word of comfort.

While not universal, the finding of solidarity among survivors of emergencies is relatively common. Existing psychological explanations for social behaviour in disasters – pre-existing social networks (or so-called ‘social capital’) or family ties – did not apply in many cases. Our analysis suggested that the shift in behaviour towards solidarity was due to a psychological shift based on the changing social context. An emergency or disaster can create a sense of common fate – a situation where people were now grouped together instead of positioned as individuals. In Gestalt terms, the ‘figure and ground’ shifts from ‘me in relation to other individuals’ to ‘us in relation to the emergency/threat’. In such events, survivors often describe a new sense of ‘we-ness’, which in our language is a shared social identity. Sharing a social identity means that the boundaries of concern become more inclusive. People give support to others because the ‘others’ are now ‘us’.

This analysis offers an alternative to previously-dominant understandings of crowd behaviour in emergencies as irrational ‘mass panic’. Instead, it promotes the idea of spontaneous self-organization in crowds of survivors, who act as the ‘fourth emergency service’ in the absence of professional responders – as has been seen in events as diverse as the World Trade Centre evacuation, the Hillsborough disaster and Hurricane Katrina . Our current research, on solidarity at the 2010 Chile earthquake and on the informal orderliness that maintained crowd safety at an outdoor music event that was almost a disaster, add to this analysis some details of the underlying process. They each show that shared social identity leads not only to the motivation to help strangers in emergencies but also to expectations that others (strangers) will be supportive of group members. These expectations of support in turn are the basis of collective efficacy and coordinated action for the group.

Our account also has some implications for professional emergency responders. If through shared social identity people in crowds have the psychological capacity to support each other and thereby contribute to their own coping and survival, then approaches which treat crowds as ‘problems to be managed’ and attempts to coerce, control the crowd or withhold information are worse than useless. As we have argued, such exclusive ‘command and control’ approaches risk creating anxiety and disempowerment. Instead, professional responders and those working in crowd safety need to build upon the crowd’s capacities by giving the crowd the information people need to act and organize effectively.

In suggesting that crowd psychology is the basis of collective resilience, this account also offers a potent critique of individualism. While the dominant discourse presents individualism as the highest form of rationality, our research turns this around by showing that very often it is through understanding oneself as part of the crowd that safety is enhanced. Examples of doors being blocked in emergency evacuations suggest that it is acting as an individual in a collective setting risks turning an emergency into a disaster.

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  1. […] This unity and feeling of group-belongingness generates support for others in the same group because the ‘others’ become ‘us’. And although the fire happened in North Kensington, many people understand that “fire is an […]

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