Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
There is no doubt that the world feels like a slightly terrifying place at the moment. Top of mind from the last year alone we can cite the Ebola crisis, Boko Haram, an aeroplane that seemingly disappeared from the sky, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the continuing threat of ISIL.
The crisis that was closest to home for me – the hostages of the Lindt Café – made me wonder about the nature of humans in a disaster. As I walked past Martin Place just hours after it unfolded, I witnessed people already standing in queues to buy flowers to lay tribute. Of course, we saw how the flowers kept coming and soon there was a huge tribute wreath to which Sydney-siders came for days and days to pay their respects. It made me wonder – is this just the great sense of solidarity and mateship that we believe pulls Australians together in a crisis? Or is this simply human behaviour at its core? How do human beings behave in a crisis?
Popular culture and the media do not generally portray humans as an awesome lot to hang with in the post-apocalyptic days. Hollywood movies & TV depict a bunch of ruthless, individualistic, dog-eat-dog types competing for scarce resources after the alien/zombie/tidal wave invasion. However, studies in the sociology of disaster paint human beings in a very different light. Myths about disasters are widespread and often perpetrated by the media – the bad stuff makes good news after all. Yet, the disaster research centre of Ohio has studied nearly 100 different disasters since 1963 and found that preconceived beliefs are generally untrue.
Myth #1: The roads will clog with panicked people fleeing from the scene of the impending disaster.
Research shows that the reverse is usually true – that people dig their heels in and chose to “wait it out”. I know someone evacuated during the Lindt siege who refused to leave – it wasn’t like he was asked to flee his childhood homeland, but was simply offered the option of finishing his work safely at home in his ugg boots. He chose, however, to stay in the office - he was too close to finishing a deal he had been working on for a fortnight.
Myth #2: Looting is abundant so best load up your rifle to protect what’s yours
Actually, communal property norms uphold and most people don’t loot. People are feeling altruistic and are less concerned about long term goals such as status and wealth which generally feed materialism. Further, they commonly try to share what little they have rather than take from others.
Myth #3: Crime rates run rampant as baddies become more opportunistic
Crimes rates have actually been noted to drop during a post emergency period (although it must be remarked upon that the police probably have bigger fish to fry versus rolling out the booze bus.) However, research shows that the sense of the need to care for others is generally heightened, rather than the desire to take from others.
Myth #4: “Disaster shock” occurs and the impacted population are too dazed and useless to help themselves, an idea made popular in writing by Naomi Klein.
Yet, the evidence suggests that disaster shock is a rarely seen phenomenon, and when it is evidenced it is usually short lived. Actually, the immediate post impact period is highlighted by intense activity, the emergence of new groups, and adaptive behaviour.
Myth #5: We will all be huddled in make-ship camps eating bad food from tins
Popular culture will have disaster survivors huddled together in overcrowded public shelters, peering bleakly at the camera from their temporary and unhomely abode. In fact, research shows that in these short term crises, 70-90% of people will stay with friends, relatives, neighbours or put themselves up in hotels – again demonstrating how people naturally pull together in a crisis.
Indeed, in her book A Paradise Built In Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes that disasters bring out the best in us and that post disaster behaviour is in fact what we should be striving for as a civilized society. (Obviously without the disaster bit). Studies show us to be more cohesive and unified, more innovative at problem solving and far more resilient than we are given credit for.
Rebecca goes so far as to assert that in reality it is either botched government response or the media deliberately heightening our fears of what might happen that impedes our ability to go about with our collective efforts to regroup. For example, she notes of the Hurricane Katrina: “Myths spread about things like the rape of children in the Louisiana Superdome, of mass looting, of black mobs menacing white property. Tape loops of the very worst behavior ran over and over on television, obscuring what life in the city was really like…A militaristic mood set in, with white vigilantes out patrolling for, and sometimes killing, the black people they falsely imagined were threatening them.”
So, if left to our own devices more or less, we humans do tend to be a pretty good bunch in the aftermath of the apocalypse. But is it just us Aussies, or is it a human thing? Whilst Aussies would like to say otherwise, it seems it is a fairly universal human truth. That said, culture does play a role upon emergent behaviour during disaster response. Studies have compared responses in the USA and Japan and show that both countries exhibit cooperative emergent phenomena after disaster - in Japan, even the mafia worked with the government. However, it has been noted that emergent behaviour and organization are less likely to appear in Japan than the USA.
So maybe we Aussies can take a little bit of credit for our sense of mateship after all…