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The Myth of Panic

We see it time and again in the movies. A disaster is about to happen: a nuclear bomb is about to explode in a major city, a deadly virus has been released from a laboratory, a giant meteor is about to strike the earth, an alien spaceship is spotted heading towards the earth. And the reaction from the president is always the same: “We must not tell the public or there will be mass panic and hysteria”.

Except there won’t.

The assumption of public panic is a useful plot device for disaster movies, but as an instrument for policy formulation it is defective. Policy makers seem to assume that the public will panic, but research shows the opposite. Baruch Fischhoff, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Society for Risk Analysis, says “people, however stressed, almost always keep their wits and elevate their humanity”. In his article A Hero in Every Aisle Seat he says:

Studies of civilians’ intense experiences in the London Blitz; the cities of Japan and Germany in World War II; the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York; the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995; and even fires have found that people, however stressed, almost always keep their wits and elevate their humanity.

In his article Panic: myth or reality, Lee Clarke, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Rutgers University states:

Before, during and after disasters, the ‘general public’ warrants trust and respect. Panic is often used as a justification by high-level decision makers to deny knowledge and access to the public, on the presumption that people cannot handle bad news. Research on how people respond to life threatening disasters and the stories form the World Trade Center show that people handle even the most terrifying news civilly and cooperatively. Our leaders would do well to see us as partners in recovery rather than a ‘constituency’ to be handled.

In The Swine Flu Panic That Wasn’t. Mass hysteria fails to materialize. Again. Jesse Walker says:

People are sharing information, they’re seeking out information, they’re asking questions about whether or not they have the symptoms,” says Jeannette Sutton, a researcher at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Those are not incidents of panic or hysteria. That’s rational thinking, where people are asking questions and trying to make decisions based on the information they have available to them.”

It’s not as though there haven’t been any destructive overreactions to the H1N1 flu. It’s just that they’ve come from officials, not the general public.

A John Hopkins University study dispels panic myth and suggests ways to involve the public in response to a bioterrorist attack.

Planners and policy makers have long discounted the public’s ability to participate in a response to bioterrorism, because of a belief that an attack would create mass panic and social disorder.

However, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who reviewed the public’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the recent anthrax mailings, and other disasters concluded that the public does not react with panic but with effective and adaptive action and can be an valuable response force and that should be considered in biodefense planning.

It is a myth that a community’s first response to a crisis is panic.

The public are much smarter than portrayed – we pay much more attention to the actual reported numbers than the apocalyptic predictions of the media and politicians.

The assumption of public panic results in poor policy decisions. It’s not the public who panics, it’s the politicians.

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