In The Simpsons, whenever a large crowd of Springfield citizens assemble, they are sure to be almost immediately swayed into irrational mob behavior, whether a soccer riot or building a monorail.
But how often does that really happen?
T. Greer tweets:
There is a common theme to disaster response in 20th century American and European history. It goes like this: worse than the disaster will be panic and disorder. Our number one concern is stop to prevent panic and disorder.
In reality most disaster never create much panic, and panic does not result in violence and rioting when it occurs anyway, it results in paralysis. Most sharp, sudden disasters actually have the opposite effect: they produce spontaneous bouts of charitable, brotherly behavior.
Rebecca Solnit has an interesting book on this called “A Paradise Built in Hell,” for those interested.
A lot of these misconceptions go back to a once extremely influential book by a Gustave Le Bon, published in 1895. The book’s thesis was that humans in crowds were naturally full of “Impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, and the absence of judgement of the critical spirit… By mere fact he forms a part of the crowd a man descends several rungs of civilization. Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian.”
In @LawDavF’s book Strategy: A History (which I review here) Freedman describes how these ideas were very influential in the development of air-power theory in the early 1920s and 30s.
To put complex ideas crudely, there was this notion that bombing campaigns would be a complete revolution in warfare, as the threat of bombing cities would turn the masses and crowds of industrialized cities into panicked crowds. Disorder would ensue and governments would fall.
Italian general Giulio Douhet’s book in the early 1920s predicted the next war would be one of strategic bombing of cities, which would induce morale collapse among the civilians and riots that overthrow their government.
Italian elites quickly overthrew Mussolini once Allied bombing of Rome from Sicily had begun in 1943, but British and German civilians proved to be made of sterner stuff.
The theory was tested first in the Blitz in London and in the Japanese bombing campaign over Chongqing. Both cases proved the same result: the bombed did not tear each other apart in fear. The bombings had the opposite effect. It brought the bombed together.
That is what shared trauma tends to do. The exceptions are long disasters that slowly wear away at civic society over time as more and more of life becomes a zero sum game. Cities under siege have this problem; so do societies suffering from inflation.
But by and large disaster brings out the best in people, not the worst. So much so, in fact, that it is common to back at the old days of danger and sacrifice years later with a sense of nostalgia for the sense of “we are all in this together” that the people then had.
This is not to minimize the toll of disaster. People die. Things break down. Things are terrible.
But almost never because of “panic.”
Which raises the question: if so few disasters cause panics, and if so few panics cause disorder, then why is this idea so prevalent? Why does the brain worm stick?
The most convincing answer I have heard is this: those who fear panic are those with authority – cultural or political. They fear loss of that control. They imagine terrible things happening once the rules they defend no longer govern society, no matter how temporarily. …
The real lesson to take: if you are an authority–a government, say, or even a newspaper–you should be far less concerned with stopping panic and getting people to follow standard norms of behavior, and far more concerned with *actually alleviating the disaster at hand.*