Anatomy of a Mass Panic

In situations of impending death, people want to survive, he said, but they will also reach for loved ones, because the threat of being alone is also very strong.

But Mawson said the desire to reach loved ones has a downside.

"I think these sorts of disasters in auditorium or theater fires are usually involving people who don't know each other very well and are in an unfamiliar location, and whose basic reaction is to get home to one's loved ones," he said.

He explained this desire can also wind up keeping people in harm's way. "These tendencies to look after one's group often slowed down people's escape from a dangerous situation."

In the case of the temple stampede on Sunday, the fact that most of the people there were unfamiliar with the area and did not know many of the others around them may have helped set off the panic, Mawson said.

"Being in the presence of unfamiliar people should increase people's anxiety, my guess would be," he said.

Combined with the unfamiliar location, he concluded, "I think those are factors that contributed to the deaths."

The desire for familiarity may also explain why mass hysteria is usually not triggered by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, when many people stayed in their homes, despite dire predictions of flooding that ultimately came true.

"When they're with their families or family members, [people in disasters] tend to be much calmer, they tend to downplay danger," Mawson said.

Defusing Panic

Indian officials have said they are looking for ways to prevent incidents, such as the tragic stampede, in the future, and researchers have offered several suggestions, both for authorities and people caught in such a situation.

"I think, in these situations, prevention is much better than cure," Pillay said. "Disaster drills can be an important way of informing the community. It's mostly through education."

Repeating exercises of what to do in a disaster, Pillay explained, could help overcome the fact that people cannot typically think clearly in such situations.

In the case of events, such as the pilgrimage to the Himalayan temple where the stampede occurred, logistical preparations can also help to minimize the chances of a disaster.

"I wouldn't have 25,000 people crowded onto a mountaintop with one path of egress down a dangerous mountain path," Mawson said. He added that he would have staggered exits from the temple, but acknowledged that "it's hard to get people to let others go first."

However, he noted that one could take advantage of the natural inclination of most people to go with what they know.

He said one should monitor the exits, because most will attempt to leave the same way they came in, so finding an alternate route may be the key to a speedy departure.

"There's a tendency to approach the familiar, even within the situation," Mawson said.

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