Picture a crisis event. Do you see apocalyptic mayhem shrouded in gunfire, looting and anarchy? Or, do you envision paralyzed victims that helplessly wait for emergency responders to save the day? Or, do you think of panicked people shoving and trampling over others to save themselves?
Due in large part to the press and entertainment media, these types of scenarios are what most people think they will have to combat in a crisis situation. Consequently, they make poor decisions based on what sociologists call disaster mythology, or popular myths that inaccurately predict the way the general public will react to a catastrophe.
You will probably be relieved to find out that these ingrained portrayals are actually worst-case scenarios and not the norm. Here is a list of the top three disaster myths surrounding human behavior.
Myth #1: People will revert to a barbaric state (i.e., looting, murder and rape).
As a result of this myth, military troops are often deployed as law enforcement rather than humanitarian aid. Business and home owners refuse to evacuate their property because they are scared of looters.
If you remember the headlines during Hurricane Katrina, the press sensationalized looting, murder and rape as common occurrences. However, Jaime Omar Yassin divulges that a lot of these stories were unfounded. For example, while there were accounts of people taking necessary survival items, the number of actual looters (people stealing luxury items) was quite exaggerated. Furthermore, the violence at the infamous evacuation shelter, the Louisiana Superdome, turned out to be virtually non-existent. Lucy Tobin quotes Ed Galea, a professor of mathematical modeling at the University of Greenwich, as saying, “…9.9 times out of 10, people don’t turn into crazed individuals, but behave quite rationally.”
Myth #2: People will become blank slates and roam aimlessly around in a state of shock.
After conducting extensive social research, Monica Schoch-Spana found that most people become innovative problem solvers and rarely put themselves first in a crisis situation. In the article titled Disaster Mythology and Fact: Hurricane Katrina and Social Attachment, the authors write, “Most rescue work, including providing first-aid and transportation, is done by disaster victims themselves, as witnessed after the Asian tsunami in 2004, the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, and the 2005 bombing attacks in London.”
Myth #3: People will cause mass hysteria with panic flight.
Due to this myth, many executive decisions to evacuate are delayed for fear of causing public panic, even though most people would rather not evacuate than to flee blindly. Ms. Schoch-Spana further debunked this myth with studies illustrating that people don’t normally panic until their escape routes become totally inaccessible. Lee Clarke echoed this sentiment with the conclusion, “After five decades studying scores of disasters, such as floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, one of the strongest findings is that people rarely lose control.”
Remember that these behaviors are not completely false. Events like these do occur; they are just exceptions to the norm. So, in creating and enacting your emergency plans, don’t underestimate people’s capacity to react and help. Trust and utilize your crisis team and other employees to get your company through a disaster.
To learn more about other disaster myth misconceptions, visit the World Health Organization’s website.