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Research and Impact

Recognising and Understanding Collective Resilience in Crowds of Survivors

26 September 2016

Our research on the psychological effects of crowd participation has provided new rationales that have changed the crowd and emergency management practices used by a number of bodies and institutions; the concepts and principles we have helped develop have become part of their guidance literature. Specifically, in relation to psychosocial care for people affected by emergencies, our research on informal resilience in crowds has contributed to the rationale for a new approach evident in NATO and the Department of Health guidance and training.

Impact Lead: John Drury

Co-investigators: Steve Reicher, Chris Cocking, Damian Schofield, Andy Burton, Paul Langston, David Novelli, Clifford Stott

Lead institution: University of Sussex

Project Website: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/affiliates/panic/

Scientific summary

Over fifty years of psychological, sociological and documentary research evidence converges on the view that collective behaviour in mass emergencies and disasters is typically socially structured and adaptive, with cooperation being common among survivors. The question was why: what was the process?

Drury and Reicher hypothesized that an emergent shared social identity is the basis for co-operative behaviour arising among strangers. Drury (as PI, in collaboration with Reicher, Cocking, Schofield and Langston) therefore applied social identity principles to the topic of crowd behaviour in emergencies. Through ESRC funding, he carried out a series of studies, including experiments using specially designed ‘virtual reality’ animation (1) and interviews with survivors from events such as the July 7th 2005 London bombings (2, 3), which showed that emergent shared social identity is the basis of the cooperative and coordinated behaviour frequently observed in emergencies and disasters. The insight, that when emergencies create a sense of ‘common fate’ a new shared identity is created which enhances adaptive collective response, was worked up into a model of informal collective resilience in crowds (2, 3). In a follow-up programme of research, Drury (as PI) in collaboration with Stott and Novelli developed this work in two ways. First they showed that representations of the public as having only a passive (or even pathological) role informed emergency guidance and the views of emergency and crowd professionals; these representations have been the basis of paternalistic ‘command and control’ policies in emergency response (4, 5). Second, they showed that the same social identity processes (of shared identity, social support and collective self-regulation) that arise in response to disaster could operate within ‘near-misses’ to prevent disasters (6).

  1. Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S., Burton, A., Schofield, D., Hardwick, A., Graham, D., & Langston, P. (2009). Cooperation versus competition in a mass emergency evacuation: A new laboratory simulation and a new theoretical model. Behavior Research Methods, 41, 957-970.
  2. Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.
  3. Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters27, 66-95.
  4. Drury, J., Novelli, D., & Stott, C. (2013). Representing crowd behaviour in emergency planning guidance: ‘Mass panic’ or collective resilience? Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 1(1), 18–37. doi.org/10.1080/21693293.2013.765740
  5. Drury, J., Novelli, D., & Stott, C. (2013). Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology43, 2259–2270. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12176
  6. Drury, J., Novelli, D., & Stott, C. (in press). Managing to avert disaster: Explaining collective resilience at an outdoor music event. European Journal of Social Psychology

Evidence of impact

Our research is one of the studies that underpins the NATO (2009) guidance on psychosocial care for people in emergencies and disasters (i).Thus the guidance cites Drury’s July 7th London bombs study (ref 3, above) in three places. The evidence from the study (that social, and even helpful behaviour, rather than mass panic, is usually evident in mass emergencies [p. 33], and that people may rapidly form bonds with strangers [p. 36]), is therefore part of the rationale for the NATO Stepped Model of Care which builds on survivors’ psychosocial capacities rather than assuming them to be ill or helpless. The guidance therefore recommends practical support, not psychiatric care, for most people affected by emergencies. In line with this, the guidance adopts the terminology proposed in Drury’s ESRC research by referring to ‘collective resilience’ (p. 126). The key principles of the NATO guidance are included in the Department of Health Emergency Preparedness Division’s (2009) document NHS Emergency Planning Guidance (ii). This again refers to Drury’s London bombs research (ref 3, above) and in addition cites Drury’s (social identity) definition of collective resilience as ‘the way in which … crowds of people express and expect solidarity and cohesion, and thereby coordinate and draw upon collective sources of support and other practical resources adaptively to deal with adversity’ (p. 22) (the wording is taken from a paper summarizing the London bombs study [iii]). The key principles of the NATO guidance, including Drury’s concept of collective resilience, are also reproduced in another Department of Health/ NHS guidance document on pandemics, produced for staff (iv), and in a Department of Health training module(v); each references Williams and Drury (iii).

The same studies by Drury and others are the core of a recent United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG) Case Study (vi) intended to demonstrate the usefulness of scientific research for disaster risk reduction. The case study was cited in the STAG report presented at the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan in March 2015 (vii).

Expected future impacts

The Leverhulme-funded research on representations of crowds in emergency planning and crowd processes in disaster convention (refs 4-6, above) is expected to be embedded in the training of crowd safety managers and stewards in the event safety industry.

Details of funding

Drury, J., & Stott, C. (2010-12). Representations of crowd behaviour in the management of mass emergencies. (Leverhulme Trust, F/00 230/AO, £83,075)

Drury, J., Reicher, S., Schofield, D., & Langston, P. (2004-2007). Effects of social identity on responses to emergency mass evacuation. (ESRC, RES-000-23-0446, £160,935)


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