Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Disaster Myth

Originally published in the Boston Globe, April 3, 2020

In the 2011 movie “Contagion,” a virus sweeps the globe and people panic. Pharmacies and grocery stores are looted. In suburban Minneapolis, the US Army distributes food to shuffling queues until supplies run out. A riot erupts and people turn on each other. A man tackles a young woman, trying to tear food from her arms. The character played by Matt Damon leaps forward and pulls the man off. The woman bolts away in terror.

Few of us see anything wrong with this portrayal because it is widely believed that disasters bring out the worst in people — that fear and desperation tear off our civilized veneers, and we are revealed to be wild-eyed, panic-stricken, irrational animals. When the chips are down, there may be rare heroes like Matt Damon’s character, but most people become selfish, willing to do anything to survive. Communities collapse. In a disaster, the only rule is “every man for himself.”

None of this is true. For more than a half-century, researchers have studied how people behave during and after disasters and emergencies — everything from earthquakes to hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and fires — and what they consistently find is the opposite of what is popularly believed: Disasters bring out the best in people. We become more considerate, more compassionate, more willing to help.

Most people don’t panic and riot. Most become Matt Damon.

We should have learned this lesson almost 20 years ago. When terrorists struck New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, famously surly New Yorkers transformed into models of decency and generosity. Volunteers combed the poisonous rubble. People offered food, water, or whatever aid they could to strangers. Even in the worst moments, when people in the doomed buildings were streaming down stairways, there was urgent fear — a rational response — but people didn’t panic and trample the weak and the slow. They cooperated as best they could and got through a terrible time.

In Britain, they call it the “Blitz spirit” — in memory of the dark nights of World War II when the Luftwaffe rained bombs on British cities, smashing buildings, setting fires, killing thousands. Night after night the bombers came. The survivors suffered terribly but, contrary to the expectation of military theorists in the 1930s, they didn’t fall to bits. And society didn’t collapse. As always, a criminal few took advantage — some bombed buildings were looted — but the great majority struggled on, together, and Britain’s war effort got stronger despite the destruction.

When German cities were later subjected to worse bombing, even the destruction of whole cities failed to break the bonds between people.

The same was true of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. As many as 500 million people were sickened and 50 million died. There was no pandemonium of the sort portrayed in “Contagion.” But there were countless acts of selflessness and generosity.

Part of the reason for popular misconceptions lies in the word “panic.” It’s a word often heard, so it may seem that panic is common. But what people call “panic” is almost always better described as concern or fear. Panic is fear so explosive it causes wild, unthinking, irrational behavior — like the drowning man who pulls down the swimmer trying to rescue him.

Real panic is extremely rare, even in situations where we assume it must be. When people are trampled to death by large crowds, careful investigation sometimes reveals the culprit is not panic but ignorance: People who see others fall try to stop and help but they are pushed forward by the people behind, who are unaware of what’s happening.

Even the threat of imminent death may not produce panic. In a 1999 crash that killed 11 people in Little Rock, Ark., investigators found that as the smashed airplane lay on the ground and fire filled the cabin with smoke, people helped strangers, moved in a single file without any pushing or shoving, and cooperated to open emergency doors. Some even stood aside to let others go first.

This really shouldn’t be surprising. Think of our species from an evolutionary perspective.

We are slow and weak. We’re also intelligent, which is helpful, but the ability to do trigonometry isn’t much good when a lion attacks. Our species needed something more to survive and thrive. We needed cooperation.

People working together are fearsome. They can survive almost anything.

This is why we are a profoundly social species. Working with others is literally our nature. It’s in our genes.

It is absurd to think that in moments of crisis, when mutual support is most critical, most of us would betray our fundamental nature and adopt an “every man for himself” attitude.

It is also counterproductive. If leaders believe that disasters bring out the worst in people, they may hide information to avoid causing panic. That can erode trust. Worse, leaders may think they must rely on force to keep people in line. Both are serious mistakes.

The “cholera riots” of the early 19th century were prompted not by the epidemic ravaging Europe but by hated and feared authorities imposing harsh controls while keeping the public in the dark. People didn’t turn on each other. They — not unreasonably — turned on those authorities.

Trust earns trust. If we trust each other, we will be vindicated.

The simple truth is that we are in this difficult time together. Which is good. Because when life is at its worst, we are at our best.