ISOKIA Science

On a current occasion:
Panic and Panic Myth

Dr. habil. Elke M. Geenen - 2011-03-25

"Panic" as expression of conflict about scarce goods

Again and again behaviour of women and men in crises and disasters is labeled as “panic”. Not only, that mass media cultivate this myth, without analyzing what the phenomena labeled so actually are. Also by some so-called crisis researchers the panic legend is troubled with pleasure, although a competent social scientific side could be proving for decades in a variety of empirical studies that it is a most rare phenomenon in reality.

However, about what is it if "hamster purchases" or "panic buyings" take place? If people e.g. at present are stocking up on packaged water-bottles in Japan or buy empty the shelves of grocer's shops? Or else if they invest in “concrete gold” (e.g. owner-occupied flats and houses at excessive prices) now in view of an economic crisis in which wrongly advised investors let themselves in for dubious funds and lost their private assets about this.

The concept "panic" is not at all analytical but a label which explains nothing.  It just rather describes the non understanding of those who unreflectedly use this concept. The term implies irrationality of individual behaviour and in the overwhelming number of cases which are labeled as "panic", it is not all about it.

Because behind almost all cases which are labeled as "panic" stand social conflicts. They are centered around access to scarce goods.

Not only material goods can be scarce. Confidence or safety feeling also can get scarce in a society. Because if you signal – e.g. from a political side – that nothing more will be that way like before an event (e.g. before the supergau of Chernobyl or before the latest reactor accidents in Japan) this means for people that secure expectations for future are breaking away. The individual wonders how it will become. The principle uncertainty about future gets symbolically on doubles by a political message beeing just as unclear as the oracle of Delphi.

Behaviour resulting from individual and collective world observation in face of danger is directed towards localizing and reducing uncertainty about future.

Orientation for needs and future

The will of people to safeguard their own survival and to calm fundamental needs is basic. This over-life will itself is still pre-rational, of course not irrational. The central means calming the basic needs are air for breathing, individual space, water and food. There are needs for a minimum of safety and confidence. In everyday life these material and immaterial goods seem to be available in adequate measure, so that it does not come to conflicts concerning access to them.

However people see in special situations, in crises and catastrophes the danger that access to these essential goods is refused or remains locked for them. Then phenomena appear which are in a superficial perspective labeled as "panic". Behind this stands an anticipated or observed distribution conflict around actually scarce goods.

In view of this conflict the behaviour of individuals is not at all "panic-stricken" or "irrational", but ahead planning into an uncertain future. In doing this everybody observes also behaviours and attitudes of others. So the scarcity partly can be derived from the observation, that others stock up on bottled water (in view of a radioactive contamination of surface waters serving the drinking water supply) or on food. The existing distribution conflict gets – since it is not adequately processed and regulated socially and politically – “solved” individually. This means the loss of access to goods regarded as important is anticipated individually and people plan for the bottleneck situation.

This behavior is individually rational, not only because the protection of basic needs increases background confidence and the individual can turn towards other questions if stocks are available for surviving. In evolution history mankind has gathered profound experiences with the importance the protection of satisfaction of basic needs has. The experience has been acquired in times of urgency and crises, during wars and at catastrophes. This evolutionary transmitted knowledge – reactivated by corresponding events from time to time – is rational for preservation of mankind.

The asymmetry of prospects of scarce goods and population behaviour

The panic-attributors, among them particularly mass media, make another mistake – besides the ignorance toward the conflict and need structure outlined here: They overlook that they think from an other perspective than the citizens they defame as irrational. They claim namely a total social perspective for themselves, a kind of bird's-eye view, from which they are looking at the phenomena. So experts are questioned whether the water is really so dangerous for the people or whether there is high risk for radioactive contamination for example in Germany (when it is reported that people stock up on durable food). Since experts for example in Germany assess without exception risks requiring such stock formation being low, rationality of population perspective is gathered from rationality of expert perspective. Between both points of view a principle asymmetry lies, however. Because the experts can assess risks only on basis of former experiences (epignostical), they are perspectively past oriented, while people who make up their mind for or against stockpiling are venturing forecast about future. It is a commonplace that future is open and unsafe. Crises and catastrophes do not increase the openness or uncertainty of future. However, they remind of this openness and uncertainty pushed aside in everyday life.

"Just in time" production and distribution

In societies adjusted to "just in time" production and delivery stockpiling almost has become a foreign word. They stock up from day to day. Meanwhile storage facility rolls on streets and rails and is transported on ships or in aircraft. They are on the road and not in residential storage. This production and distribution orientation is anything but unsusceptible against crises and catastrophes. It orients itself towards an everyday concept according to which everything required is in steady smooth motion and is immediately available when required. A possible distribution conflict is not scheduled. In management strategies at best a contrary exchange conflict is considered, turned towards the price at which goods can be sold or purchased (from supplier view: obtaining the highest price for the offered good; from buyer view: paying the lowest price for the desired good). The possible non-availability of the good – independent from price – is excluded from thinking.

The requirements in crises and catastrophe situations are diametrally opposed to the "just in time" orientation meanwhile disseminated throughout societies. Emergency managers and disaster researchers have pleaded for decades, that population should already provide for emergency, adequately equipped with food, water and medicine stocks, since in crises and catastrophe situations a speedy supply for the affected population is aggravated. In this respect "hamster and panic buyings" could be interpreted as catching up prophylaxis and meet somehow the intentions of forward-looking disaster precautions.

Panic as result of scarceness of time and space

Those cases cannot be dismissed, in which assembled people actually react so, that the labeling panic-stricken may be correct.

Especially in situations in which groups of people are in a bottleneck situation scarce goods are space and time. This means, the spatial bottleneck situation appears suddenly and is so serious that individuals have to act immediately. No time remains for any adequate outline of one's own behaviour.

Examples: A fire in a cinema or a discotheque. Emergency exits are missing, are not recognizable or locked, people press after from behind, having to escape from the fire or smoke. A bottleneck situation in a stage or in an underpass, e.g. at the Love parade of the year 2010 in Duisburg. In these cases people in a number and density press after, so that to those who have come into hard-press the situation may appear as impasse and hopeless.

On the one hand, central features of sociality are that human beings have an understanding access to world to be able to act. With the second the social world around us builds up as a world of meanings. In the outlined bottleneck situations the comprehensible access is blocked for people, however. Time is neither enough for a self reflective interaction nor for verbal communication with others. No time remains for any appropriate interpretation of the processes ongoing around. In some way people are robbed in such situations of what belongs to the quintessence of their manhood, the possibilities of scheduled and comprehensible behaviour and of acting governed by reason. Because, if the individual does not have place left for a self controlled behaviour, the conflict around the scarce good space gets virulent. If the individual feels existentially threatened it finally can come to the physical fight for space. Injury and loss of lifes may be the effect.

In connection with this arrangements resulting from computer models of engineers and providing columns as "breakwaters" e.g, are only a weak substitute for what would be necessary to take into account at the design of buildings, arenas, gateways etc, with regard to major events: That it must not come to constellations, robbing almost inevitably people of their rationality and thus also their human dignity.


For a re-edited version see:

Elke M. Geenen, On the Current Occasion: Panic and Panic Myth, in: Disaster & Social Crisis Research Network Electronic Newsletter N°. 43, December 2010 – March 2011, p. 12-13.







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