Join 3,440 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Failing Gracefully
July 7, 2005 11:35 AM   Subscribe

People don't panic in disasters Here's what Lee Clarke has to say about Panic: Myth or Reality. And he has some things to say about terrorism as well.
posted by warbaby (31 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember once my car spun out on an icy highway. As it happened, all I remember was thinking "OK, this could be bad," and calmly waiting for the skid to stop. It was only then that my heart started racing and I broke out in a sweat. Struck me as odd at the time.
posted by jonmc at 11:42 AM on July 7, 2005


How about some link in that second link? Here's an article called "Panic: myth or reality?" by a guy named Lee Clarke; of course I'm not sure it's the thing you originally meant:

http://www.contextsmagazine.org/content_sample_v1-3.php
posted by rkent at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2005


I was in a fairly serious car accident three years ago. I remember that my first thought afterwards was, "This must have been pretty bad, because I'm very calm right now."
posted by Slothrup at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2005


Thanks rkent. that's the one.
posted by warbaby at 12:03 PM on July 7, 2005


The context article was informative because the first thing I did when I started reading it was google "fire trampled" and then Clarke dealt with just those kinds of things. The pictures were also quite striking. Good post.
posted by OmieWise at 12:04 PM on July 7, 2005


The second link was excellent reading. Thanks, warbaby + rkent.
posted by Rothko at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2005


Remember the flip side of panic can be disbelief and freezing up. Act calmly, but do not hesitate. For example, don't shut your computer down, don't ask your boss if you can leave, just go.
posted by rainbaby at 12:29 PM on July 7, 2005


The first link has a picture of someone clearly panicking running from 9/11. I think people differ in the way they respond to an emergency.

I know a guy who was a volunteer fireman on the side and was trained in life saving. When his son started choking he panicked and did everything he was NOT supposed to do. His wife had to save the kid from him.
posted by sultan at 12:31 PM on July 7, 2005


sultan writes "I know a guy who was a volunteer fireman on the side and was trained in life saving. When his son started choking he panicked and did everything he was NOT supposed to do. His wife had to save the kid from him."

I think the point of the article is that anecdotal evidence often does not tell the whole story, but that the research that has been done indicates that panic is a less common reaction than popular opinion would lead us to expect.
posted by OmieWise at 12:43 PM on July 7, 2005


research that has been done indicates that panic is a less common reaction than popular opinion would lead us to expect.

sounds about right. it may be played up in movies for dramatic effect, but doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that it isn't something to worry about. Doing a Google search on "panic deaths" will give enough examples that it is a problem.

but he does put a good case against the idea that most people turn greedy when panicked.
posted by destro at 1:15 PM on July 7, 2005


At ground zero on 9/11, after everyone else had run away, the mood on the street was oddly upbeat. A lot of laughing, joking, almost a festival atmosphere.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:25 PM on July 7, 2005


Like jonmc and slothrup above, my experience supports Clarke's point. In times of danger and stress, what I notice, is a sense of time slowing down, and a very cold, logical part of my brain taking over, if only for brief periods. I suspect most people have similar experiences. The part about Hollywood and the press emphasizing how much people panic is interesting, considering this is where we get our cues on behavior. I wonder how many apparently panicked responses to danger are a result of people acting as they think society expects them to. That also touches on one of my (many) pet peeves with the "war" on terror.
posted by MetalDog at 1:30 PM on July 7, 2005


Nice read. He makes very interesting points in the article, especially on the use of panic as a quicker explanation for more complex things and the political use of it.

I think it's true that in general when you're caught in something bad going on you tend to switch to automatic and be almost forced to react, especially if there are other people involved. I have certainly felt that way in situations of danger or accidents etc. On the other hand, it can be easier to panic when it's about anticipation of bad things that migth happen, not something you're actually experiencing now.
posted by funambulist at 1:45 PM on July 7, 2005


Also touched on in these comments in MeCha. Lee later wrote to me and said he liked #1. (cryptical because of borderline self-link. You know what to do...)

NB: the "activation syndrome" is totally distinct from panic. The slowing down of subjective time is due to your getting overclocked. The pictures of people running from the collapsing WTC tower aren't panic -- running like hell is the right response in that circumstance. Panic is senslessly harming yourself or others while flailing around. "Fire panics" are usually due to no exit -- it's enviromental, not social.
posted by warbaby at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2005


Awesome post.
posted by elderling at 2:47 PM on July 7, 2005


when people get trampled to death, it's definitely part social and not just environmental.
posted by destro at 2:51 PM on July 7, 2005


Panic may be rare, but it does happen. A medical examiner wrote a book that talked about his cases, including what happens when passenger airlines crach. The airline industry was ticked when his examination of wreckage scenes showed it was hardly women and children first. Often it was the biggest and strongest -- read adult males -- who fought their way to the escape exits. For the life of me I can't remember the name of the author. I read this book more than a decade ago.
posted by stevefromsparks at 4:39 PM on July 7, 2005


There was another recent article (my Googlefu is failing me today) about "fight vs. flight" being only two of three possible scenarios in a distressing situation. The third was "freeze" and the article cited a number of studies and cases of this phenomenon. People who freeze in their seats during a fire or crash, even when there is an exit, and then succumb to smoke and fire. This wasn't the article I read but it describes a bit about the phenomenon.
posted by jeanmari at 4:54 PM on July 7, 2005


i think it's called 'shock and awe.'
posted by brandz at 5:23 PM on July 7, 2005


I wonder if this is partially an product of our culture of line-making and general orderliness. I've been places where buying vegetables or getting on a bus was a complete free-for-all.
posted by 4easypayments at 5:52 PM on July 7, 2005


When I had my big car accident -- the car skid in the snow, did a 180, hit a guardrail, flipped in the air and landed on the passenger side -- I was actually quite calm. I remember telling myself "better hold on to the steering wheel" as I felt the car lift off the ground, and when it came to a stop I calmly undid my safety belt, rolled down the window, and lifted myself out of the car, then walked about 10 feet and lit up a cigarette.

It took me a few minutes to realize that I didn't have my glasses on (I can't explain that -- I'm almost blind without them), but I never panicked.

Same thing for 9/11 (I was going to work in Jersey City, right across the river from the WTC). If anything the complete silence around JC and Hoboken that day was more freaky than anything else, but then everyone was glued to their TVs that day.
posted by clevershark at 6:21 PM on July 7, 2005


Clevershark, if your car exploded while you were lighting up you'd be my own personal Jesus for at least the next couple of days.
posted by Sparx at 7:20 PM on July 7, 2005


LOL! seriously though, the first guy who stopped to help me pointed out that there was in fact a puddle of gas only a few steps away from where I was... so I guess I could say that I was a mere few inches away from a Hollywood moment.
posted by clevershark at 7:31 PM on July 7, 2005


jeanmari, I couldn't find a specific article (except perhaps this light one on stress). It does appear that more professionals are using a "fight/flight/freeze" behavior model in place of the 80-year-old Cannon fight-or-flight postulate. I did find an excellent paper on the freeze response in animals, as applied to humans (appropriately enough, the author is named -- I kid you not -- Scaer). It seems that there is an element of conditioning -- if you have had experiences which lead you to a feeling of helplessness, this could contribute to whether you freeze up in emergenices.

brandz: While the research I've noted does tend to support the idea of a freeze response, the original article suggests that panic is not something we can count on. I think at best shock and awe is a mixed bag as far as whether it makes sense in terms of social psychology, at least as a military strategy.

Often it was the biggest and strongest -- read adult males -- who fought their way to the escape exits.

This, of course, was the public shame of the Titanic disaster.

clevershark: I hydroplaned on I-90 out of Chicago a few years back, and the minivan I was driving drifted out of its lane (away from the only nearby vehicle) and towards the shoulder. I ended up doing a 540 against the guardrail. I remember calmly looking over at my dad to make sure he was wearing his seatbelt and telling him to hang on.
posted by dhartung at 7:43 PM on July 7, 2005


my experience supports Clarke's point. In times of danger and stress, what I notice, is a sense of time slowing down, and a very cold, logical part of my brain taking over

Sympathetic nervous system taking over from the parasympathetic. Epinephrine boost, eyes function differently, brain functions differently. It's a design feature. (no, not intelligent design, you wags)

Had the skid out, too. And have been on the brink of drowning twice -- as a child in my uncle's swimming pool, and in the ocean in a riptide during a massive hurricaine. Time slowing down, clear thinking -- definite evolutionary advantage, if you ask me.
posted by dreamsign at 9:28 PM on July 7, 2005


One of the original 10 Standard Orders for Firefighting; "Remain calm, think clearly, act decisivly."

Good firefighters and chief officers can remain calm in the most tumultous of conditions. Poor emergency responders, including chief officers, become stressed and behave irationally and illogically.

Hollywood has done a great dis-service to people by showing every car that crashes as bursting into flame or exploding. In reality very few car crashes result in fire. Every year accident victims are made worse or completely disabled by bystanders yanking them out of a car, fearing a fire or explosion after an accident without considering the consequences of moving them.
posted by X4ster at 12:00 AM on July 8, 2005


Yep, our car spun out during a late April snowstorm several years ago and as I sat in the passenger seat and waited for the approaching car to hit my door, I, too, felt alert, calm and observant. I'm surprised to find so many people in this thread with almost the same reaction. Epinephine, eh? Neat.

I remember reading something ages back about a similar calmness being detected in prey animals at the point of capture by a predator. I'm not sure if this was strictly an observation of their demeanor or whether brain chemistry was checked in some way. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
posted by maudlin at 4:24 AM on July 8, 2005


Yep, our car spun out during a late April snowstorm several years ago and as I sat in the passenger seat and waited for the approaching car to hit my door, I, too, felt alert, calm and observant. I'm surprised to find so many people in this thread with almost the same reaction. Epinephine, eh? Neat.

I remember reading something ages back about a similar calmness being detected in prey animals at the point of capture by a predator. I'm not sure if this was strictly an observation of their demeanor or whether brain chemistry was checked in some way. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
posted by maudlin at 4:24 AM on July 8, 2005


Note to self: learn to freakin' well follow ALL the lionks dhartung, the paper you cited in your link may be the source I was thinking about re animal response.
posted by maudlin at 4:29 AM on July 8, 2005


Just another anecdote on the whole car-crash/calmness thingy.

Lost it on some ice in northern Texas in December of '99. Did about a 720 before hitting the grass and flipping the car up on it's passenger side. Undid my seatbelt and kicked out the read window after helping my girlfriend from the passenger seat.

Of course, about 2 hours later I was a bit of a wreck as the adrenaline/epinephrine suddenly cut out of my system and I was still picking broken glass out of my face. Safety glass. Yeah, right. Safe to embed itself in your cheek.

My girlfriend was just as calm. We walked away from the car, pulled out our cigarettes and smoked half a pack while waiting for the tow truck (lucky me, about 10 other cars lost it on the same stretch of highway at about the same time, something about a flash freeze, apparently happens a lot in north Texas).

Yeah, cool as a cucumber during. It's the after part that gets to me.


On a side/related note, I later developed alergy induced asthma. After one hospital visit due to me panicking and hyperventalating (you don't understand how scary it is to not be able to breath), the doctors prescribed me the standard albuterol emergency inhaler (which, for the uninsured or minimally insured, is not cheap). I went through my first prescription in about 2 years (shows you how much my asthma is really just a histamine response once an irritant gets into my bronchial passages). When I went back for a refill, the pharmacist pointed out that I could get the Primatine mist inhalers for about 1/3 the cost of the albuterol and it worked just as well for those who only use it for emergency bronchial dilation. Of course, the fun part is that Primatine is .22mg of epinephrine. Whoo, that was fun the first time I had to use that one. Suddenly the world was a much calmer place. Of course, it's coming down off it that you get that wierd "HULK SMASH!" effect. Of course, this is also the danger of such a drug. Being able to consciously induce an adreniline rush is probably not healthy, let alone very socially responsible.
posted by daq at 11:50 AM on July 8, 2005


The one time I yanked somebody out of a wrecked car, I was standing in gasoline from the ruptured tank. The car missed me by inches when it plowed into a steel lamp post. He was a lot bigger than me but I just picked him up and carried him out. I had barely got him out when he regained consciousness, knocked me down and ran fifty feet before collapsing. Then the cops who had been chasing him showed up. If I had to do it over again, I'd have left the bastard in the car. It didn't burn and the fire department showed up about ten minutes later.
posted by warbaby at 12:54 PM on July 8, 2005


« Older Alarming Article on Security Procedures...  |  Museum of old Russian radios... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments