Saturday, 10 September 2011

What do the events of 9-11 tell us?

From the beginning, the mass evacuations of September 11th 2001 were thought to tell us something important about the nature of collective responses to emergencies and disasters. In the months and years following the events, social scientists carried out detailed research investigations of behaviour during the evacuations. Some of their key findings were as follows:

- The building evacuations were highly successful; 99 per cent of occupants below the sites where the planes struck survived. The success was due in large part to efficient spontaneous mass coordination among the people who moved down the stairs of the World Trade Centre towers.

 - Cooperation and helping behaviour was common among the building evacuees

 - Panic was not a collective response; panic ‘was only noted in 1/124 (0.8%) cases’; gathering information was a more common response to the emergency.

 - Over one million people evacuated themselves from the area of New York affected by the disaster, and thousands of members of the public converged on the city in order to offer help to the survivors. A strong sense of community arose among those involved in the evacuation and in the relief effort.

What do these kind of findings mean for our understanding of the nature of collective responses to emergencies and disasters?

For researchers, this is further evidence against already discredited theories such as ‘mass panic’. Theories of ‘mass panic’ suggest that exaggerated fear responses to danger spread easily through a crowd in a process of ‘contagion’, leading to rash, uncoordinated and ultimately dysfunctional behavioural outcomes, such as fighting for and blocking exits. Against this, current thinking on group processes suggests that group membership is not a source of pathology but a source of strength. Psychological group membership provides expectations of unity, offers of support and hence the organization and collective agency people need to respond effectively to adversity. The evidence from the 9-11 evacuation is in line with this account of group processes.

However, the evidence of collective resilience during 9-11 has also been interpreted as telling us something about the national identity of the USA. In this account, the resilient behaviour of the evacuees stands for or represents the character of the rest of those included in the national category.

Are there cross-cultural differences in mass emergency behaviour?

On the one hand, and at least in one sense, it is surely right to say that the evidence from the 9-11 evacuations tells us something about American responses to adversity.

One (mis)reading of cross-cultural psychology gives rise to the question of whether people from individualist national cultures (like the USA) will display less solidarity in mass emergencies than those from ‘collectivist’ cultures (such as Japan). It is a question that I am often asked when I give research presentations. One answer to the question is that, across national cultures as diverse as Japan, the USA, Britain and Germany, the same pattern of solidarity (rather than mass panic) has been documented in response to mass emergencies and disasters. The evidence of mutual coordination and co-operation shown by ‘ordinary Americans’ in the 9-11 mass evacuations therefore undermines notions that this country’s individualist culture precludes the emergence of ties of solidarity and collective strength.

On the other hand, when the collective resilience witnessed in the 9-11 evacuations is taken by politicians and propagandists to demonstrate something special or exceptional about the psychology of the American national category, we can see problems. Specifically, there are two problems with this kind of claim.

Problem 1: Every national category is claimed by its leaders to be ‘special’ in times of war

The first problem is that representatives of every nation state try to claim that their citizens’ resilient response to adversity is special or even unique. It is no coincidence that highlighting public resilience and characterizing the resilient group as standing for the whole national category is particularly prominent in times of war.

In the second world war, the British state highlighted the ‘Blitz spirit’ of Londoners, who faced nightly bombing raids, as a way of raising national morale. The terminology and the image were less a neutral description of events than an attempt to mobilize and create national unity around the war. Following the London bombings of July 2005, politicians and commentators similarly evoked the ‘bulldog spirit’ of Londoners, attributing the calm orderly response of survivors to their special characteristics, which would again serve the nation well in a time of war 'against terror'.

As simple descriptions, these claims to exceptionalism are undermined by the same kind of review evidence that tells against the cross-cultural hypothesis. However, they are not simply descriptions. They are attempts to rally people to wars, and to bring about the resolve and unity of which they speak; they can also operate as exhortations to endure privations in the interest of war on behalf of the national category.

This takes us to the second problem.

Problem 2: Are we really ‘all in it together’?

The second problem with explaining events such as the 9-11 evacuations in terms of the qualities of the national category is that it glosses over possible differences among those included in 'the nation' in terms of interests, experiences and behaviours. Disaster psychologists tell us that both suffering and assistance are often distributed inequitably — reflecting structured inequality in resources (for example by class)

Disaster sociologists and critical journalists add that ‘elites’ and ‘masses’ perceive and respond to emergencies and disasters differently. This can mean that definitions of collective threat may not be universally shared, and therefore that solidarity may be bounded. Specifically, the representatives of the ‘elites’ may regard the response of the mass as more problematic than the emergency itself, and act against the mass on this basis. This is perhaps most starkly illustrated in examples such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In that ‘national emergency’, grassroots solidarity arose particularly in the black working class. However the authorities neglected and imperilled their safety, demonized and pathologized them in propaganda, and colluded in their racist murder.

Accounts of the evacuation of 9-11, by contrast, paint a far less fragmented picture, and indeed illustrate how different sections of society displayed camaraderie during the evacuation.

However, the narrative of businesses and workers alike coming together in shared humanity is somewhat problematized by the fact that, when the first plane struck on 9-11, the immediate response of the Port Agency, who are in charge of the World Trade Centre buildings, was to urge employees to return to their desks. Luckily, most people ignored this advice!

And in the aftermath, a number of underlying social conflicts became explicit. One of the fundamental tensions within the national category was between the masses and the professionals acting on behalf of the ‘elite’. Grassroots and unofficial groups and networks had established themselves and were managing very well to organize food, housing, communications and security for evacuees. But official organizations moved in and sought to shut them down. The ‘festival of mutual aid’ was superseded by an 'elite panic’.

It was not the ‘elite’ and their professionals who effected the mass evacuations; the masses achieved it themselves. The 911 emergency call system was ineffective; the police and fire service did not coordinate properly; people organized evacuation and relief despite, not because of, the normal hierarchical rules and relations. The collective response to the emergency was effective precisely because it was not centrally directed; but professionalization of, and exclusive control over, humanitarian relief was nevertheless imposed. The national policy response went further: national (‘homeland’) security, emphasizing suspicion of one’s neighbours and the need for further centralized control. Through its actions, the ‘elite’ undermined sources of collective resilience and hence produced the very vulnerability - including paralysing fear, lack of freedom and reduced agency - that it was premised upon.

What do the events of 9-11 tell us?

The 9-11 evacuations tell us at least three things.

First these events illustrate very vividly the human potential for solidarity within groups in conditions of adversity.

Second, collective psychosocial resources – and especially the informal and context-dependent psychological groups we belong to – may well be more important than expert and professional response in times of emergency. For one thing, in a large scale emergency, the emergency professionals will simply not be in place in sufficient numbers to be effective.

Third, while the ‘elite’ therefore relies on the masses in emergency response, it also fears them. The otherwise useful concept of ‘elite panic’ could be read as implying that this fear is simply irrational. Elite responses may well be ill-judged, but they may be grounded in fear of real potentials. Following Charles Fritz, Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters are microcosms of mutual aid that may provide insightful glimpses of social possibility. It may be that elites recognize these subversive qualities too, and hence the potential danger to their own privileged position. 


Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: A social identity model. In J. Jetten, C. Haslam, & S. A. Haslam (Eds.), The social cure: Identity, health, and well-being (pp. 195-215). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.