If you’ve ever actually listened to the movie screen and located the exit nearest you, or paid attention to the flight attendant’s miming, you’ve probably wondered whether you would ever really make it there before your fellow humans stampeded you to death.
The thing is, panic rarely happens. “The most widespread myth about disasters is the belief that people will panic in the face of great danger,” reads a report by the University of Wisconsin’s Disaster Management Center. The idea that people will flip out in a crisis is largely a media invention.
“You find the exact opposite of panic,” says British fire safety expert Edwin Galea, who has studied dozens of disasters. “People act very rationally. They might be running, might be screaming, but that’s not panic. Running from the scene of a disaster is a rational decision.” In the World Trade Center tragedy, many people not only avoided panicking but helped others. “If nothing else,” he says, “it’s good for the soul.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is people might even be a little too laid-back in emergencies. Panic’s not the problem, the Seattle Fire Department tells its citizens; instead, “inaction, denial, and fear of appearing foolish cause more deaths.” Galea dubs this “negative panic,” when a person freezes up or goes numb in the face of danger.