Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threat and disaster

Psychiatry. 2005;68(2):95-113. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2005.68.2.95.


While mass panic (and/or violence) and self-preservation are often assumed to be the natural response to physical danger and perceived entrapment, the literature indicates that expressions of mutual aid are common and often predominate, and collective flight may be so delayed that survival is threatened. In fact, the typical response to a variety of threats and disasters is not to flee but to seek the proximity of familiar persons and places; moreover, separation from attachment figures is a greater stressor than physical danger. Such observations can be explained by an alternative "social attachment" model that recognizes the fundamentally gregarious nature of human beings and the primacy of attachments. In the relatively rare instances where flight occurs, the latter can be understood as one aspect of a more general affiliative response that involves escaping from certain situations and moving toward other situations that are perceived as familiar but which may not necessarily be objectively safe. The occurrence of flight-and-affiliation depends mainly on the social context and especially the whereabouts of familiar persons (i.e., attachment figures); their physical presence has a calming effect and reduces the probability of flight-and-affiliation, while their absence has the opposite effect. Combining the factors of perceived physical danger and the location of attachment figures results in a four-fold typology that encompasses a wide spectrum of collective responses to threat and disaster. Implications of the model for predicting community responses to terrorist attacks and/or use of weapons of mass destruction are briefly discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Disasters*
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Mass Behavior*
  • Panic Disorder / psychology*
  • Psychology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Terrorism / psychology*