Safety Science 2023: It’s (not) just a matter of terminology: Everyday understanding of “mass panic” and alternative terms

Helena Lügering, Dilek Tepeli, Anna Sieben


Although the idea of mass panic is quite common in reports on accidents involving crowds, most experts consider it to be erroneous. In a nutshell, they argue that panic and animalistic behavior of humans are not the main causes of crowd accidents, but that it is rather an organizational issue. However, few of the existing studies have addressed the question of what lay people associate with the term. With our mixed-method study, we sought to shed light on people’s underlying ideas and assumptions about mass panic. Additionally, we were interested in how these ideas change using two alternative terms, namely “mass accident” and “mass disaster”. Results showed that participants in the questionnaire (N = 282) and interview (N = 17) study indeed strongly associated the term “mass panic” with irrational and selfish behavior, and less with orderly behavior. In addition to the organizers, people in the crowd were seen as responsible for such accidents. Besides, most actions judged appropriate to defuse the situation were related to the advice “Don’t panic”. Deviating from the concept, however, it was indicated that helping behavior can be found in critical situations. The questionnaire in which participants only saw one of the three terms revealed no change in the everyday understanding with the alternative terms. Nevertheless, interviewees found their own “mass panic explanation” insufficient but also had no alternative ideas of what causes such accidents. Therefore, replacing the problematic concept of mass panic requires not only alternative terms, but also the dissemination of scientific explanations.

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