Crowds and Identities: John Drury’s Research Group

Perceived threats and 'stampedes': a relational model of collective fear responses

This research will address the question of how people respond collectively to acute states of perceived emergency. Both in the UK and globally, the occurrence of terrorist attacks has been associated with an increase in collective flight incidents - often called 'stampedes'. Most have been false alarms. In the case of the incidents in Oxford Street, in 2017, for example, hundreds ran from what they thought was gunshots, and many more joined in when they saw people running, in a cascade of secondary effects. These events are often distressing for those involved. Some of them result in injury and even deaths. 

'Stampedes' in response to perceived hostile threats raise the following questions: When and how is a signal perceived as threatening? When and how do people flee? When do they follow (or ignore) others? What is the role of other groups (authorities, emergency services) in communicating threat? When do these incidents become disorderly?

Yet despite their social and psychological significance, these incidents are poorly understood, and an adequate theoretical understanding is currently lacking. Explanations in terms of hypervigilance are necessary but insufficient. They don't explain either how threat perceptions are shared or the collective nature of 'stampedes'. Explanations in terms of 'crowd panic' are also inadequate, despite dominating public discourse. They cannot account for the evidence of discrimination and restraint in these evacuation events.

This project will provide the first systematic evidence on the nature and dynamics of human 'stampedes' in response to perceived hostile threats. We will develop a new model, based on the social identity approach (a theory of our psychological group memberships) and social appraisal theory (which focuses on the social and emotional information we infer from others' responses). We argue that 'who we are' - which can vary across contexts - shapes perceptions of threat, emotional appraisal, and social influence. A distinctive claim is that crowd events such as these are intergroup relationships. Therefore, as well as examining crowd members' perceptions and behaviour, we will examine those of emergency responders, and the relationship between responders' communicative acts and public behaviours. 

Previous limitations in understanding 'stampedes' in response to hostile threats are due to a lack of appropriate methodology as much as the paucity of theory. We will address these limitations through a programme of research comprising three strands. First, a case study strand will systematically describe and compare known examples (e.g., Nice fire-cracker 'stampede' of 2018, evacuation at Westfield shopping centre, 2018), as well as provide detailed analysis, using interview and archive data, of a contemporary and a historical incident. Second, experiments using Virtual Reality will allow us to manipulate and control variables, such as group relationships and norms, and to measure direction and speed of flight response, in order to test systematically our hypotheses about the roles of identity and appraisal. Third, given the role of emergency responders and authorities in communicating threat, we will observe their exercises and carry out a field experiment to measure their influence (intended and unintended), including effects of their messages. Together these studies will enable us to determine when and how a signal is perceived as threatening, whether and how people flee, when people follow (or ignore) others, and the role of the emergency services in this.
Understandings of public responses to perceived emergencies have implications for emergency policy and practice and for public debate. Therefore, as well as a new theoretical model, outcomes from this project will include new emergency guidance, and new public discourse on this topic.

This research is funded by the ESRC, Ref ES/T007249/1, and more information about this project can be found here.