This is not the time to panic!

Clarke says that part of the panic myth is that people misinterpret their own, and others’, behavior as panic. “What they are usually reporting, though, are feelings of fear and not panic-stricken behavior.” He explains that the myth provides authorities (i.e., decision-makers, politicians, and administrators) with an easy explanation for complex events. Even when panic does happen—say at soccer matches—focusing on it usually detracts attention from more important factors such as official misconduct or police over-reaction. In addition, by using pacifying speech (e.g., “Everything is under control…") to allay public fear and hiding information from the public, spokespersons cultivate distrust at a time when nothing could be more important to public safety than trust of the information that authorities disseminate.

Citing three disasters in which panicky behavior would be expected, Clarke shows that in dangerous situations (e.g., in a plane crash, a fire in a crowded hotel), people don’t usually turn against their neighbors or forget moral commitments. People rarely lose control. The same message rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

“We have five decades of research on all kinds of disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, airplane crashes, etc. – and people rarely lose control,” Clarke said. “Policy-makers have yet to accept this. People are quite capable of following plans, even in the face of extreme calamities, but such plans must be there.”

—Space.com1 and American Sociological Association2¸3