In his latest article in Significance, Steve Gwynne asks, “How do we behave in emergencies.” Essentially, it is all about Safety in Numbers. Analyzing responses to fire, Gwynne debunks myths of irrationality and claims that, “human behavior in emergencies is complex but not chaotic.” Interestingly, the:
“Critical response is that people prefer the familiar. If you enter a building using the same route every day, then that is the route you will probably use in an emergency even if you know of others”
In addition to the familiarity factor, people don’t act individually. They act collectively:
“They found that the social groupings that were present before the fire tended to exist even in death – that people tried to care for those important to them.”
Beyond mama-lion syndrome, this extends into friends clusters and groups with whom you closely identify. While Gwynne lacks good data, his arguments provide the basis for spatial models integral to humanitarian relief. If we can model how communities behave in the face of disasters, we can establish more effective humanitarian corridors, anticipate population needs, and account for potential directional movement.
It’s going to be a good day when there is enough satellite data of population movement to draw a cross-cultural picture of collective behavior response in the face of emergency.