Relax—Everything Is Under Control

People rarely become hysterical during disasters—even if they are inwardly terrified.

By Kat McGowan, published on July 1, 2005 - last reviewed on December 12, 2007

The jetliner's engine belches black smoke and your plane lurches downward. Or, you're in a crowded dance hall and there's a gunshot—everyone screams. Or, you're playing golf, and a grizzly lumbers onto the green, snorting and grunting. Everyone panics. Right?

Not likely. Monster-movie scenes of mass panic—people shoving, tipping over baby carriages, trampling old ladies—are wildly unrealistic, say disaster researchers. People rarely become hysterical during disasters—even if they are inwardly terrified. Interviews with crash survivors compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board reveal little panic. Individuals who survived the World Trade Center attack report that most people remained calm as they evacuated the burning buildings; they helped strangers, passed around bottled water, made room for emergency workers.

Why don't people stampede when faced with death? In times of crisis, the rules of ordinary life persist. Most people don't abandon routine behaviors readily: In the evacuation of the Twin Towers, many workers paused to shut down their computers. One group on the 86th floor retreated to the conference room to debate their options before leaving.

In fact, crises often foster uniquely social behaviors. Surprisingly, a common first response to a fire is not a dash toward the exit but an attempt to regroup with friends. People also "mill" or spontaneously form small groups to share information and discuss what to do next. Given this reflexive social impulse, every-man-for-himself behavior is—thankfully—far less common than we think.