How does human behaviour change in an emergency situation?

Our personal and business lives depend on how well we understand human behaviour. The better we understand ourselves and others, the more we can do to improve our relationships with people. Many employers these days ask candidates to take personality tests to see if they are the right fit for their business. Having this kind of information allows them to look for certain character traits that they think will benefit their teams and thus grow their business.

One of these traits is acting under pressure. Acting under pressure at work is somewhat similar to how people may act in an emergency situation.

Our human behaviour can change dramatically when we are taken out of our comfort zone or familiar surroundings. We do things we would have never even thought of doing with a clear head. This is the kind of behaviour we need to consider, assess and be prepared for, when an emergency situation arises at an event. The problem here is that we are not dealing with a handful of people but potentially with thousands of human beings, who will follow the “group”, whose actions are highly contagious with others.

To understand crowd behaviour we should firstly try to understand human behaviour.

Many studies have been undertaken on this subject and some of the most interesting findings include:


An experiment undertaken by Stanley Milgram found that a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress. This classic study is the closest psychology has come so far to understanding Nazi Germany and how they could commit such atrocities whilst following Hitler’s orders.

The Stanford Prison Experiment asked college students to play a “game”. They would be randomly assigned to be “prisoners” and “guards” and spent two weeks within a simulated prison on the campus. The experiment was called off after six days because the “guards” had become vicious and sadistic and the “prisoners” passive and extremely stressed proving that the power of the situation came to control their behaviour in destructive ways.

The bystander effect:

When a young woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment building while a number of people watched and did nothing has stimulated a study of how people react in an unclear emergency situation. The findings illustrated that the more people who saw the incident, the less likely they were prepared to act. This means that we not only rely on others to recognise the seriousness of the situation but we are also diffusive of responsibility.

Does exposure to media violence in ones childhood cause violent behaviour?

Albert Bandura’s experiment on children proved that adults that were heavy viewers of violent programs as children are more likely to be aggressive against others when insulted or offended and to be convicted of crimes.

Do groups make better decisions?

Psychologist Irving Janis analysed several of cases where group decisions were made and found that some common elements led to doomed decisions in high-stress and important situations. These elements included group cohesiveness, a striving for unanimity, pressures for conformity in reaching a decision, self-censoring of different ideas, guarding oneself against information that conflicts with the group’s desired solution and illusions and misperceptions of invulnerability.

There are many other studies such as cognitive dissonance and the fundamental attribution error that are worth reading about. We’ve covered the most relevant to this article.

What we have to remember is that the outcome of an emergency is largely determined by the behaviour of the people involved. If we want our emergency plans to be robust, we must profile the crowd in advance and predict human behaviour in emergency situations.

It is recognised that any person involved in emergency situation will be stressed. This isn’t always a bad thing as we tend to act quicker under pressure. The way we deal with stressful situations depends on many factors including experience, environmental conditions and task demands. Imagine yourself not being able to find a fire exit in a building that is smoke logged. The longer you look for that exit, the more stressed you become and if you panic you may decide out of desperation to jump out of the nearest window instead, not thinking of consequences such as breaking your legs.

The decision making process during an emergency differs from the day to day decision making for three reasons:

  • Survival
  • Time to escape being limited
  • Information on which to base a decision is ambiguous, incomplete and unusual

Ed Galea, professor of mathematical modelling at the University of Greenwich believes that the decision making process isn’t as simple as we assume it is. He has interviewed survivors who escaped from World Trade Centre and Paddington rail disaster survivors. Gala’s research shows that 9.9 times out of 10, people don’t turn into crazed individuals, but behave quite rationally. They tend to help each other too.

Paris 2015, underlined the fact that our perception of risk can fluctuate, and most definitely be affected by the media and acts of terrorism. These attributes can cause members of the public to panic, yes panic, when hearing a car backfiring and concluding it was in fact gunfire….

There are of course many other elements that have to be considered at events such as drug and alcohol consumption and the use of social media. Social media could potentially have a bigger effect on the crowd than alcohol and drugs combined. A disturbing social post can travel at the speed of light and cause mass disruption. It is now common place to have a person/persons monitoring social media at events, to enable them to act fast should any unconfirmed reports be made.

The need for Cyber Security plays a significant role at major events as any breach, of the event official social media/websites, could in fact, have a devastating affect on the overall crowd management and safety.

There are many examples of crowd panic online that event organisers, local authorities can research, read and familiarise themselves with. Equally, there are countless examples of the event response to an incident/crowd response to an incident, being too slow and concluding in the loss of life.

For further information on our Human Behaviour in Emergency Training, or any other Crowd Management and Event Safety requirements, please contact