No panic for petrol

Filling petrol 30 March 2012

The so-called 'panic buying' of petrol is anything but, argues Dr John Drury at the School of Psychology, University of Sussex. He has been studying crowd psychology in emergencies, and led the ESRC-funded research project Effects of Social Identity on Responses to Emergency Mass Evacuation.

"People queuing for petrol may be acting in their personal interest rather than the collective interest, but this is cognitively driven rather than an instinctive 'flight or fight' response," Dr Drury says.

In the current situation, instead of acting as part of a community, we act (rationally) as individuals – deeming that if others are hoarding what they need for themselves, we need to do likewise. In giving out confusing 'don’t panic' messages authorities also undermine the credibility of official announcements. The queuing and bulk-buying is therefore logical, given people's reasonable beliefs about others' behaviour and their reasonable mistrust of the authorities.

Indeed, the whole notion of 'mass panic' is a myth, Dr Drury argues; there is no research evidence to suggest that crowds are susceptible to an uncritical spread of simple emotions.

"Our research on crowds, based on my ESRC grant, showed that in emergencies people in crowds typically act just as reasonably upon the knowledge they have as they do in other contexts. Some may get excessively upset. But it is others – strangers – within the crowd who comfort and calm them. Many people delay their exit to care for others. Is that irrational?" Dr Drury asks. "Only if we are defined only by our personal identities. Emergencies show that relationships matter."

But does the current hoarding of petrol tell us anything about what our reaction and resilience would be in the face of a real crisis?

"Unintended consequences of actions by those in power can undermine resilience," says Dr Drury. "My research shows that collective resilience – the use of group support to cope with adversity - is a function of our psychological group membership. Any pronouncements by those in authority that indicate that our neighbours are not to be trusted to act in the collective interest, sets us apart as individuals - and therefore undermines the basis of our resilience as a collective."

Other ESRC-funded resources: