Public behaviour in response to perceived hostile threats: An evidence base and guide for policymakers and practitioners

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report

Abstract / Description of output

Background: Public behaviour and the new hostile threats
• Civil contingencies planning and preparedness for hostile threats requires accurate and up to date knowledge about how the public might behave in relation to such incidents. Inaccurate understandings of public behaviour can lead to dangerous and counterproductive practices and policies.
• There is consistent evidence across both hostile threats and other kinds of emergencies and disasters that significant numbers of those affected give each other support, cooperate, and otherwise interact socially within the incident itself.
• In emergency incidents, competition among those affected occurs in only limited situations, and loss of behavioural control is rare.
• Spontaneous cooperation among the public in emergency incidents, based on either social capital or emergent social identity, is a crucial part of civil contingencies planning.
• There has been relatively little research on public behaviour in response to the new hostile threats of the past ten years, however.
• The programme of work summarized in this briefing document came about in response to a wave of false alarm flight incidents in the 2010s, linked to the new hostile threats (i.e., marauding terrorist attacks).
• By using a combination of archive data for incidents in Great Britain 2010-2019, interviews, video data analysis, and controlled experiments using virtual reality technology, we were able to examine experiences, measure behaviour, and test hypotheses about underlying psychological mechanisms in both false alarms and public interventions against a hostile threat.
Re-visiting the relationship between false alarms and crowd disasters
• The Bethnal Green tube disaster of 1943, in which 173 people died, has historically been used to suggest that (mis)perceived hostile threats can lead to uncontrolled ‘stampedes’.
• Re-analysis of witness statements suggests that public fears of Germany bombs were realistic rather than unreasonable, and that flight behaviour was socially structured rather than uncontrolled.
• Evidence for a causal link between the flight of the crowd and the fatal crowd collapse is weak at best.
• Altogether, the analysis suggests the importance of examining people’s beliefs about context to understand when they might interpret ambiguous signals as a hostile threat, and that. Tthe concepts of norms and relationships offer better ways to explain such incidents than ‘mass panic’.
Why false alarms occur
• The wider context of terrorist threat provides a framing for the public’s perception of signals as evidence of hostile threats. In particular, the magnitude of recent psychologically relevant terrorist attacks predicts likelihood of false alarm flight incidents.
• False alarms in Great Britain are more likely to occur in those towns and cities that have seen genuine terrorist incidents.
• False alarms in Great Britain are more likely to occur in the types of location where terrorist attacks happen, such as shopping areass, transport hubs, and other crowded places.
• The urgent or flight behaviour of other people (including the emergency services) influences public perceptions that there is a hostile threat, particularly in situations of greater ambiguity, and particularly when these other people are ingroup.
• High profile tweets suggesting a hostile threat, including from the police, have been associated with the size and scale of false alarm responses.
• In most cases, it is a combination of factors – context, others’ behaviour, communications – that leads people to flee. A false alarm tends not to be sudden or impulsive, and often follows an initial phase of discounting threat – as with many genuine emergencies.
2.4 How the public behave in false alarm flight incidents
• Even in those false alarm incidents where there is urgent flight, there are also other behaviours than running, including ignoring the ‘threat’, and walking away.
• Injuries occur but recorded injuries are relatively uncommon.
• Hiding is a common behaviour. In our evidence, this was facilitated by orders from police and offers from people staff in shops and other premises.
• Supportive behaviours are common, including informational and emotional support.
• Members of the public often cooperate with the emergency services and comply with their orders but also question instructions when the rationale is unclear.
• Pushing, trampling and other competitive behaviour can occur,s but only in restricted situations and briefly.
• At the Oxford Street Black Friday 2017 false alarm, rather than an overall sense of unity across the crowd, camaraderie existed only in pockets. This was likely due to the lack of a sense of common fate or reference point across the incident; the fragmented experience would have hindered the development of a shared social identity across the crowd.
• Large and high profile false alarm incidents may be associated with significant levels of distress and even humiliation among those members of the public affected, both at the time and in the aftermath, as the rest of society reflects and comments on the incident.
Public behaviour in response to visible marauding attackers
• Spontaneous, coordinated public responses to marauding bladed attacks have been observed on a number of occasions.
• Close examination of marauding bladed attacks suggests that members of the public engage in a wide variety of behaviours, not just flight.
• Members of the public responding to marauding bladed attacks adopt a variety of complementary roles. These, that may include defending, communicating, first aid, recruiting others, marshalling, negotiating, risk assessment, and evidence gathering.
Recommendations for practitioners and policymakers
• Embed the psychology of public behaviour in emergencies in your training and guidance.
• Continue to inform the public and promote public awareness where there is an increased threat.
• Build long-term relations with the public to achieve trust and influence in emergency preparedness.
• Use a unifying language and supportive forms of communication to enhance unity both within the crowd and between the crowd and the authorities.
• Authorities and responders should take a reflexive approach to their responses to possible hostile threats, by reflecting upon how their actions might be perceived by the public and impact (positively and negatively) upon public behaviour.
• To give emotional support, prioritize informative and actionable risk and crisis communication over emotional reassurances.
• Provide first aid kits in transport infrastructures to enable some members of the public more effectively to act as zero responders.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • crowd behaviour
  • mass emergencies
  • terrorism


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