The ESRC research project
When large numbers of people gather in public spaces such as stadia, railway stations, shopping centres, concert halls and cinemas, their response to possible emergencies is always a consideration. Collective 'panic', as evidenced in crushes and the jamming of doors as people compete to escape, has been blamed for deaths at a number of public venues.
The ESRC research project sought to develop a novel approach to emergency mass evacuation based on the social identity perspective. We argue that this approach can help explain the conditions determining whether emergency evacuation behaviour is un-coordinated and individualized (and hence collectively ineffective and dangerous) or co-ordinated and co-operative (and hence more efficient for the crowd as a whole).
Early studies suggested that crowds panic when faced with danger and a limited exit. Later work suggested that behaviour would instead be limited by social rules and affective ties, so people were more likely to help others rather than compete to escape. Our project has sought to help explain gaps in existing theoretical models – such as why it is that people in emergencies take risks to help strangers. Our initial hypothesis was that mutual concern, helping and co-ordination were more likely when crowd members shared a common identity. The personally selfish behaviour associated with 'mass panic' may occur if there was no shared identity. Four kinds of studies were carried out: (1) interview studies with survivors; (2) Computer visualization (virtual reality) experimental studies; (3) room evacuation experimental studies; and (4) an analysis of crowd behaviour in the London bombings of July 7th 2005.