About 'Stampedes'

How do people respond collectively to acute states of perceived emergency? In the UK, the threat level from terrorism has been at least ‘severe’ (meaning that an attack is thought to be ‘highly likely’) on several occasions since 2014. The occurrence of marauding attacks has been associated with an increase in collective flight incidents – often called ‘stampedes’ – many of which turned out to be false alarms. In the case of incidents in Oxford Street, London, in 2017, for example, hundreds ran from what they thought were gunshots, and many more joined in when they saw people running, in a cascade of secondary effects. These public responses can be distressing for those involved.

‘Stampedes’ in response to perceived hostile threats raise the following questions: When and how do people perceive a signal 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 information about threat? When do these responses become disorderly?

These flight phenomena therefore touch upon fundamental topics in social psychology, including appraisal, social influence, collective behaviour, communication, and intergroup relations. Yet despite their social and psychological significance, ‘stampedes’ are poorly understood, and an adequate theoretical understanding is currently lacking. The lack of adequate understanding of public behaviour in these events, and their own role in affecting that behaviour, is a problem for the emergency services and the bodies that advise them.

This project is an innovative programme of research, including case studies, a comparative review of incidents, experiments using virtual reality, and interactive exercises with the emergency services. We will develop an enhanced understanding of collective flight behaviours and improve procedures and policies for response to perceived threats. Our findings will help the emergency services, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Public Health England and Local Resilience Forums to boost public safety. Outcomes will therefore include new theory, new emergency guidance, as well as new public discourse on this topic.