Recommendation: Trust the public with honest information and do not minimize risk out of fear of causing panic – which is grossly overprescribed. Promote shared identity to increase cooperation rather than competition in crisis.

The panic excuse

Whether it’s movies about aliens secretly living amongst us or the very real threat of global pandemic, leaders invoke the need to prevent ‘a panic’ as an excuse to mislead the public or minimize threats. We have witnessed this repeatedly as presidents, prime ministers, governors and mayors tried soften the blow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s heated response to ‘snarky, nasty question’
The US president launches an attack on a CNN journalist who questioned his coronavirus response.
I don't want panic in the country. I could cause panic, much better than even you, I could make you look like a minor league player.

-- Donald Trump, March 30, 2020

Effective ‘Anticipatory Guidance’ in Coronavirus Communication
Prepare your audience for what is to come.

In the days before New York announced safety restrictions that would keep millions at home, Governor Cuomo contradicted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mayor de Blasio was practicing good ‘Anticipatory Guidance’ when he warned that new restrictions were imminent saying, “Get ready for the possibility, it’s a decision we would only make with the state of New York, of course, but people have to realize at this point that this disease is going to put many, many people, thousands, tens of thousands of people’s lives in danger.”

“The fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus.”

-- Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo refusted that guidance speaking to a New York Times journalist, “And I wouldn't approve shelter in place. That scares people, right? Quarantine in place - you can't leave your home. The fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus."

He was wrong. The days of unmitigated spread of the virus was the problem not reasonable fear or nonexistent panic.

Speaking of Aliens

Much of the concept of mass panic can be traced back to a single 1940 study about public reaction to a radio program.

War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 and stories began swirling about people running for their lives believing the radio play was a real news report. The 1940 paper on the topic (PDF) from Hadley Cantril of Princeton describes the public reaction:

ON THE EVENING of October 30, 1938, thousands of Americans became panic-stricken by a broadcast purported to describe an invasion of Martians which threatened our whole civilization. Probably never before have so many people in all walks of life and in all parts of the country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed as they did on this night.

This research had major flaws including overestimating the total listeners. Cantril utilized survey results after the airing in which some people characterized their response to the program as “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited.” He overzealously lumped them all into a single category in his research: "panicked." But the myth and the paper are still referenced to this day even though the research has been thoroughly debunked and at most 12% of listeners considered they might be hearing real news reports. No credible media reports of mass panic have been discovered.

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The truth about panic

The reality is that the concept of ‘panic’ is so poorly misunderstood and overhyped that researchers who study how people respond in crisis prefer we toss the word from our crisis communication lexicon. From their perspective there is far too much panic about panic.

the concept of ‘panic’ has largely been abandoned by researchers because it neither describes nor explains what people usually do in disaster.

-- Nature, Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response

A pair of studies in 1978 and 1988, as referenced in the paper Sociology of Panic (PDF) took a more scientific approach at reviewing crowd behavior. The 1978 study analyzed public reaction following a fictitious radio report of a nuclear plant accident in Sweden. The research found that only 10% of listeners gave any credence to the report, 1% reacted to the news. No people engaged in flight behavior. Reports to the contrary were simply media creations.

The 1988 research investigated how crowds acted during a fire in a night club and a stampede at a rock concert. Both tragedies saw large numbers of fatalities but people demonstrated rational and even altruistic actions. The Sociology of Panic paper summarizes research on panic:

These findings reinforced the ever growing viewpoint among many researchers who have studied what seem potential panic situations, that pro social rather than antisocial behavior predominates even in such contexts.

Why ‘panic’ doesn’t work

In research around global health emergencies and especially responses to natural disasters such as wildfires the word 'panic' is not useful for two reasons:

  1. Panic is Rational — Sometimes panic is called for. Rushing to high ground as a tsunami approaches or racing out of the path of a fire is not ‘panic.’ It’s the correct evolutionary response to threat.
  2. People Can Handle Crisis – People are often more calm and controlled during crisis than expected. This is especially true when they are given clear directives.
...‘panic’ has served to justify the restriction of such essential public information

Researchers John Drury, David Novello and Clifford Scott reviewed 47 emergency guidance documents prepared for the UK public as well as research on how people actually behave in crisis.

Studies of mass emergencies, ranging from chemical incidents to evacuations from rail stations, suggest that the provision of adequate information about the danger reduces anxiety and leads to more efficient escape, but the concept of ‘panic’ has served to justify the restriction of such essential public information – based on a concern that the crowd might ‘panic’.

-- Representing crowd behaviour in emergency planning guidance: ‘mass panic’ or collective resilience?, Resilience, 1:1, 18-37

When people have “adequate information” their anxiety is actually reduced and they make better choices. Those charged with informing the public during emergencies are still guided by an antiquated notion of panic and withhold information when they should be providing honest information highlighting the threat.

The researchers suggest that communicators should view the public as resilient and make decisions about sharing information giving the public the benefit of the doubt. Communication that fails at this often views people as vulnerable and in need of protection from harsh truths. Downplaying threats is the worst thing to do during a public health crisis.

Now Is the Time to Overreact
If the measures we’re taking to fight the coronavirus work, they’ll look excessive later on. But the alternative is worse.

Instead, the threat of the coronavirus- and all the unknown threats it brings - should be calmly but firmly explained to the public to ensure that relevant directives are followed. If we must err slightly on the side of overreacting and potentially feeling embarrassed - such the Y2K preparations - or underreacting with deadly consequences, you should aim for the former. As Ian Bogost writes for The Atlantic:

The point of overreacting, it turns out, is to overreact: to react excessively, but with reason. If you feel at least a little foolish right now, then you’re doing something right.

A better framing than panic

By Joe Dix as part of the UN's open call for COVID-19 designs

But what about those shoppers scooping up all the cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer? That’s real. 'Panic shopping' happens, right?

To put that behavior in context though we need to ask an important question: was that a reasonable reaction? Hand sanitizer kills coronavirus. Stocking up at a time when you want to limit store visits and there is a threat of more severe restrictions actually makes sense.

Calling such behavior ‘panic’ isn’t useful. What experts have landed on is the concept of cooperation vs. competition. Your communication should strive to promote cooperation and decrease competition.

How do you increase cooperation? With a focus on shared identity. Research published in the European Review of Social Psychology highlights that when people have sense of shared identity they work together and even go to great lengths to help.

I describe a model in which a sense of common fate is the source of an emergent shared social identity among survivors, which in turn provides the motivation to give social support to others affected.

-- John Drury, The role of social identity processes in mass emergency behaviour

Competition, often mislabeled as 'panic' — buying up all of an essential item; driving dangerously to escape a natural disaster — is heightened when others in harms way are seen as different and not part of your community. Rebalance on the cooperation side of the scale by focusing on shared struggle, shared goals and shared identity.

People are donating their face masks in droves to help protect frontline hospital workers as the coronavirus overloads US hospitals
Construction workers and dentists are donating supplies and citizens are rallying volunteers to collect any they can during the coronavirus pandemic.

Communication around masks has done this well. Health agencies made it clear that necessary workers and especially healthcare professionals need high quality surgical masks. This led to an outpouring of donations to buy masks and gifts of masks.

The public was encouraged to use household items and create makeshift masks to ensure they did not exhaust supplises needed by nurses and doctors. People largely did. The framing was ultimately about cooperation so we can all get through this together.

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When 'panic' does happen

We should take a quick moment to highlight an irony of panic when compared to conventional wisdom on the topic: contrary to Men in Black’s insistence a ‘person’ (individual) is more likely to panic than ‘people’ (crowds). We have been discussing panic from public communication and sociological viewpoint, but panic is very real in the field of psychology when it comes to individuals.

External factors activate the sympathetic nervous system which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses. The research is a bit muddled as it relates to crowds and group behavior. On the one hand panicked people have trouble judging the emotions and facial expressions of others — a neutral face looks agitated or threatening. On the other hand cooperative group dynamics can help relieve panic symptoms and competitive acts increase the panic of an individual.

Anxiety or COVID-19?
How to tell the difference

The important thing for us to note is that individual anxiety and panic are very real and should be acknowledged in public communication with empathy. Coronavirus can induce symptoms similar to anxiety which has birthed guides on distinguishing COVID-19 from a panic attack. What's vital is to separate our understanding of individual anxiety (something we all feel); panic attacks (medical response to stress and anxiety);  from‘mass panic’ and false fears of that behavior.

The last word

​​Behavior that gets labeled as ‘panic’ rarely is that. The greater danger is under-reaction not overreaction. Do not let fear of panic guide public communication. People are more resilient than expected. Trusting the public with honest assessments and accurate information will actually decrease competitive behavior. Use ‘us’ and ‘we’ language to increase a sense of shared identity. Providing honest information, clear directives and promoting shared identity decreases competitive acts and will inspire cooperation in crisis.