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Panic almost never happens in the real world

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Contrary to disaster movies and journalistic clichés, panic hardly ever exists in disaster situations. Panic is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'excessive feeling of alarm or fear...leading to extravagant or injudicious efforts to secure safety.'

In examining 50 years of disaster situations, including the ‘9/11’ terrorism in the USA in 2001, scholars have concluded that people rarely panic. Even when people feel 'excessive fear' – a sense of overwhelming doom – they usually avoid ‘injudicious efforts’ and ‘chaos’. In particular, they are unlikely to harm other people as they strive for safety, and they may even put their own lives at risk to help others. 1

Professor Enrico (Henry) L. Quarantelli, co-founder of the Delaware University Disaster Research Center and the pre-eminent scholar of disaster research, concluded that the term ‘panic’ should not be treated as a social science concept. During 50 years of research involving nearly 700 different field studies, he found in only a very few marginal instances anything like panic behaviour. 2

People’s responses to floods, fires, earthquakes, terrorism, crashes, sinkings, bombings and explosions are remarkably similar. The rules of behaviour in extreme situations are not much different from rules of ordinary life. People die in the same way they live, with friends, loved ones and colleagues – in communities. When danger arises, people help those next to them before they help themselves. People are naturally social beings, and calamities often strengthen social bonds.  

Before, during and after disasters, the ‘general public’ deserves trust and respect. Panic is often used to justify decisions to deny information to the public on the basis that people can’t handle bad news. Research on how people respond to life-threatening disasters, including the World Trade Center catastrophe, show that people handle even the most terrifying news civilly and cooperatively. Politicians and top decision makers would do well to trust ordinary people to receive bad news sensibly. Communication with the public that is not candid and truthful only generates distrust and suspicion.



  1. Clarke, Lee. "Panic: myth or reality?" Contexts (Journal of the American Sociological Association): Fall 2002
  2. Clarke, Lee. As above

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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