The Myth of Panic

This New York Times op ed argues that panic is largely a myth. People feel stressed but they behave rationally, and it only gets called “panic” because of the stress.

If our leaders are really planning for panic, in the technical sense, then they are at best wasting resources on a future that is unlikely to happen. At worst, they may be doing our enemies’ work for them – while people are amazing under pressure, it cannot help to have predictions of panic drummed into them by supposed experts.

It can set up long-term foreboding, causing people to question whether they have the mettle to handle terrorists’ challenges. Studies have found that when interpreting ambiguous situations, people look to one another for cues. Panicky warnings can color the cues that people draw from one another when interpreting ambiguous situations, like seeing a South Asian-looking man with a backpack get on a bus.

Nor can it help if policy makers talk about possible draconian measures (like martial law and rigidly policed quarantines) to control the public and deny its right to manage its own affairs. The very planning for such measures can alienate citizens and the authorities from each other.

Whatever its source, the myth of panic is a threat to our welfare. Given the difficulty of using the term precisely and the rarity of actual panic situations, the cleanest solution is for the politicians and the press to avoid the term altogether. It’s time to end chatter about “panic” and focus on ways to support public resilience in an emergency.

Posted on August 9, 2005 at 7:25 AM25 Comments


RvnPhnx August 9, 2005 7:55 AM

I read this last night and I have to say that I agree with many of the points presented. I also think that presenting some sources, so that the article couldn’t be as easily attacked, would have been smart.
I am a trained first responder (though not in active practice at the moment) and I know that “true panic” (when things really do become too chaotic to comprehend and deal with, causing mental or emotional overload) is the one thing that one must not let happen in an emergency situation. There, however, is another element–one must not frivolously claim to be in a state of emergency when one truly is not (practice drills are ok, fear mongering isn’t).
By getting people to think about panicing constantly the administration is serving polical ends to the detriment of society. Why? Because when people act as if a panic situation is at hand they don’t ask questions like they should or think things through–they just do things.
I personally think that the current administrations in many countries (most obviously in the USA, of course–but Egypt could qualify also, for instance) are using the concept of “extended painic” much in the way that George Orwell thought would happen after a second world war–they are using it to press an agenda that does not benefit the vast majority of the populace.

Gary August 9, 2005 9:28 AM

People at the scene of these disasters may not panic, but people at a distance do. On 9/11, for instance, we saw a variety of panicky behaviors in completely unaffected places (I am thinking gas lines in Kentucky).

Perhaps these folks don’t have the same immediate needs demanding their attention, but the images they’re seeing are so immediate, so we get panic.

The political implications of this effect would follow RvnPhnx’s logic, I think.

linnen August 9, 2005 9:49 AM

For some reason the article reminds me of the schoolyard rhyme;
‘When in trouble,
when in doubt
Run in circles,
scream and shout.’

Which, IMO, also describes our Dear Leaders.

SN76 August 9, 2005 10:51 AM

I think a person’s ability/inability to remain calm is also based on an almost infinite number of characteristics of the individual. Where were they brought up? What kind of social activities were they involved in? What was their home life like? Did they graduate from high school? college?

so, to say that ‘panic’ is just a build up of stress ignores the basic fact that every person is different and in any emergency situation there are people that can respond and people that can’t.

Justin August 9, 2005 11:28 AM

I think the article is valid, that in extreme circumstances, people tend to become more humanitarian and helping and generally not panicked as given in the article.

I do believe that panic exists in the aftermath of extreme events. People take on irrational fears about the possibility of recurrances. People change their critical thinking to find solutions to prevent recurrences even if its not feasible to do so. Ever try to reason with someone about the odds of a particular event happening? Ever try to convince someone that you can’t prevent every determined, equipped person out to hurt, but just attempt due diligence and minimize their effectiveness?

Panic does live on in constantly fear-injected times. By being realistic, honest, and cooperative, we can tackle what comes our way as a united nation.

Brett August 9, 2005 11:48 AM


I think our leaders don’t panic, they know exeactly what they are doing. I think that they want to instill panic in the populous so that they can get more control (i.e. Patriot Act).

Hope I’m wrong, it just feels that way to me.

Davi Ottenheimer August 9, 2005 11:51 AM

Good article. Seems to say that the term “panic” is being used by politicians in the same way that many accuse them of calling on fear — to advance an agenda in the face of reason and against opposition.

It misses an interesting point about panic, however, as it only seems to assess group human response to a shared disaster where a rational response would be possible (e.g. exiting a burning plane). People who must individually respond to an undefined threat to themselves often do respond in sheer panic, and they may actually increase the overall harm and destabilization of the situation through violent overreactions.

jayh August 9, 2005 11:57 AM

so, to say that ‘panic’ is just a build up of stress ignores the basic fact that every person is different and in any emergency situation there are people that can respond and people that can’t.<<

All of us are different, and alone we have widely different fears and strengths, but we evolved as group members who draw stability from one another. Humans can be remarkably resilient.

Why did ‘War of the Worlds’ set off panic in a way that 911 or Pearl Harbor did not? I suspect because the radio listeners could not see any of the things going on, only reports on the radio which fueled the imagination, so each one had his own private hell. In real crisis situations, people interact with one another and to the actual facts on the ground and often draw balance and rationality from one another.

Davi Ottenheimer August 9, 2005 12:12 PM

Here’s another debate over what constitutes a societally acceptable deifnition of panic, and how the causes should be properly identified and treated:

“Pogany suffered a panic attack in Iraq last year after seeing a dead body and was charged by the Army with cowardice, an offense punishable by death and a charge not seen since the Vietnam era, which ended almost 30 years ago. The charge later was reduced to dereliction of duty.”


“‘Nowhere is this apparent disregard for psychological injuries more apparent than in the case of Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, who was charged with cowardice,’ Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, told a House Armed Services Committee panel on Jan. 21.

Robinson, a former Army Ranger, told UPI that some soldiers have heard about the Pogany case and are afraid of seeking help because of what happened to him. ‘This Pogany case has had a chilling effect on soldiers coming forward. I have talked to soldiers who have said it,’ he said.”

RvnPhnx August 9, 2005 2:40 PM

I think that it is worth noting that “true panic” as I have defined it above is something inside the individual. Hysteria (which could also be discussed in this venue) is often seen to be much more of a group-centric thing. This is well noted by the usages of the various related words: By working to instill fear in each individual the speaker can cause him to panic and therefore to help in spreading the mass hysteria which the speaker knows will only benefit themself.
This helps demonstrate the relationship between the individual and the group. My previous posting was mostly using language about the individual, but I think that we can all extrapolate.

Anonymous August 9, 2005 3:03 PM

I don’t think that poor or emotional reasoning and distorted world views exhibited by many people in the aftermath of certain disasters really count as panic in the sense used in the article. Panic is more than just acting foolishly.

I don’t really have a better definition to offer, though. At least, not one that doesn’t seem stupid. But now my comment seems kind of pointless. Should I post it anyway? Oh god! What do I do? Aaaaah!

That is not exactly panic either. Maybe.

Bye now.

NinNIn August 9, 2005 8:01 PM

Pretty poor article IMO. It doesn’t quote what researchers did the studies or where you can go look them up. A couple of the studies are 50 years old. Who’s to say the social psychological researchers haven’t moved on from then? Where’s the current research?

Secondly, his definition of panic to describe the phenomenon of terrorism is pretty narrow when applied to the backdrop of U.S. politics.

It’s not about politicians setting up an agenda of mass physiological panic it’s more about politicians setting up a moral panic for propaganda purposes so they can manipulate their voting base of non-critically thinking fundies.

Bryan August 10, 2005 3:15 AM

I’d rather not register for NYTimes to read the article, but I agree with it in spirit.

I’ve been through a couple of earthquakes and what I /didn’t/ see was mass panic. Sure there was fear, and occasional mistakes made by fearful people, but by and large people reacted well. Watching 9/11 on TV we saw people running – but that was the sensible thing to do at the moment! Meanwhile inside the towers, all the stories we hear are of people calmly following instructions and moving down the stairs in an orderly way. With the occasional tale of heroism peppered in for good measure.

Maybe people did panic in simpler times, I don’t know. Maybe our regular exposure to similated panic-worthy scenes (big-budget movies) has helped prepare us somewhat. Again, I don’t know. But I’m glad others are noticing that maybe, just maybe, mass panic is more myth than reality.

Grant Hutchins August 10, 2005 6:20 AM

This is why Bush kept reading the book to the schoolchildren on 9/11. He might or might not known the full gravity of the situation, but at least we didn’t have CNN repeating images of the President frantically running out of a room of scared schoolchildren.

Dave Harmon August 10, 2005 7:31 AM

Bruce Tognazzini wrote a couple of informative articles on panic reactions in October 2004. (His site is kind of dusty, but there’s a lot of good stuff up there.) The general article is at:!.html
and an example with discussion is at:

Notably, Tog points out that Bush’s apparent non-reaction on the 9/11 business was itself a typical panic response, basically “freezing up”. The real problem there was that none of the subordinates present had the authority and/or initiative, to interrupt and hustle him out of the room.

As far as “scaring the kids” goes, it would have been enough to tell them “sorry kids, something important has come up, and the President has to go deal with it”. Then, have one of his aides stay behind and finish reading the book to the kids.

And yes, I do think the administration is actively promoting public anxiety and panic for their own agenda. That trick goes back to Julius Caesar (at least). Trouble is, it’s also affecting their own people….

DarkFire August 10, 2005 9:16 AM

I think what certain elements of the media refer to as “panic” is actually the human physiological and psychological reaction to complete emotional overload.

Note the emphasis on ’emotional’ – in the immediate vacinity and aftermath of, for example, aterrorist attack, some people tend to automatically shift their world-view entirely in to an emotional frame of reference. That is to say, they do not stand there, quickly evaluate the situation and then act on what they reasonable believe is the best course of action – they become totally irrational and thus are not responsive to, well, reality. I suppose this could be some form of latent instict – the fight or flight reaction perhaps.

On the other hand – some people appear to be capable of quickly overcoming the “oh shit!” moment and returning to a rational mental decission making process. In the case of first responders training helps immensely in this respect.

Anyway, just my thoughts.

sien August 10, 2005 8:43 PM

People do panic. In the case of the Estonia ferry disaster in the 1990s people who paniced and ran did sometimes survive. The denial that panic happens is an overstatement.

There was a good discussion of this issue over at metafilter recently ( the URL is )

Roger August 11, 2005 4:34 AM

People are not machines. The more primitive parts of the mind can and sometimes do override the rational parts at times of intense stress. And often, that person is afterwards shocked and ashamed by it, unable to believe that he is not in total control of body and faculties.

This includes you, gentle reader. Yes, you’re sitting there thinking “I am a rational being, I would never descend to sheer animal terror”, but unless you’ve been to the brink and stared in, you don’t actually know. Maybe you would. Maybe you wouldn’t.

As someone else noted, a big factor is training. Or more generally, mental preparation. The ideal is to have actually planned for the scenario and rehearsed responses until they become practically instinctive, with just a few clear cut decision points. But even having merely discussed it in idle chatter, “what would you do if X?”, even that sort of thing can help. Because then the little reptilian recesses of the mind can be comfortably assured that great hulking cerebrum has some sort of plan, and the human cerebrum’s pretty darn smart, you know. But when you have no idea, or run out of options, then those little reptilian recesses go “Uh oh, the boss has no idea. Well I know what to do: dump adrenaline, dump endorphins, activate legs, and let’s get the HELL OUT OF TEXAS!”

Other factors include group behaviour. If you have no idea what to do, you are more likely to copy others. Of course group behaviour happens all the time (you do it every time you join a queue), it’s just more obvious when it is quite inappropriate. Another factor is information. People are more likely to act rationally when they have adequate information, and trust it. If you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re more likely to copy those around you (in the hope that they do know what’s going on!), or panic.

Davi Ottenheimer August 11, 2005 12:20 PM

“let’s get the HELL OUT OF TEXAS”

I see. So that explains where the reptilian-prone thinkers come from…

“Of course group behaviour happens all the time (you do it every time you join a queue)”

This brings to mind the old story about the orderly society and placid queues in Britain:

Supposedly Britain used to have extremely un-orderly habits prior to WWII (don’t know how far to go back, but peasant revolts and huge angry crowds were apparently commonplace from the late 1300s onward). Even French records in the 1900s have curious complaints about the rude and unforgiving treatment they experienced while in London. But after the heavy tolls and rationing from the world war(s), the British government enforced/rewarded a kind of group behavior that required patient and calm queuing for extremely limited resources…which is the popular impression of London we still have today of “no pushing or shoving, please”.

Kevin McGrath August 11, 2005 3:52 PM

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

For other uses, see Panic (disambiguation).

Panic is a sudden terror which dominates thinking and often affects groups of people. Panics typically occur in disaster situations, and may endanger the overall health of the affected group. Architects and city planners try to accommodate the symptoms of panic, such as herd behavior, during design and planning, often using simulations to determine the best way to lead people to a safe exit.

In sociology, precipitate and irrational actions of a group are often referred to as panics (e.g., “sex panic”, “stock market panic”), see also hysteria.

The word panic derives from the name of the god Pan in Greek mythology, who supposedly struck fear into the enemies of his subjects.

I keep thinking about those images played over & over again of the people in downtown Manhattan fleeing the collapses of the Twin Towers. Those people were panicking and running for their lives. I also remember watching a documentary of the fire fighters at work in the lobby of one of the towers and seeing them panic and flee once they realized that one of the towers was collapsing.

IMHO, some people may remain calm for a while during stressful events, but then that very basic self preservation fight or flight instinct takes over and people start running for the hills. Over here in Brooklyn, NY we call that behavior panicking.

Bryan August 11, 2005 5:51 PM


I was in London a couple of years ago, and I recall seeing (especially in the Tube) plenty of signs telling Londoners how and where to queue. They stood out because I don’t recall seeing that same message in many other places. We USA’ians are getting more accustomed to the queue, though the signs aren’t quite so blatant. We just look for the little post-and-rope assemblies which form the line (and hope we can discover the enrty point which isn’t always obvious!).

Kevin McGrath –

Well it’s been a while since I watched any 9/11 videos, but the impression I got was that while there was running, it wasn’t exactly panic-y running. I recall seeing plenty of people looking over their shoulders and slowing down when they judged they had removed themselves to a safe distance. Same goes for the firefighters: running != panic. The key point is: are people reacting sensibly to the situation? Sometimes running for your life /is/ sensible – as long as you’ve retained enough sense to choose a safe destination and watch where your feet are going, that is.

I can recall one true panic episode in my life. I was feeding trash into an incinerator when a can of starting fluid basically exploded in my face. I remember the flash/bang, and the next thing I knew, I was over 200 feet away, stopped by a chain link fence I had run into! My mind was slowed back to reasonable speed by trying to solve this problem: why can’t I run anymore? Panic carried me that 200 feet, and I’m very glad I wasn’t on a rooftop!

(Side note: I have my eyebrows back now…)

John Smith August 11, 2005 6:28 PM

Somehow, running like hell to get out of a burning/collapsing building doesn’t quite fit my definition of panic. That sounds like a sensible thing to do.

My sense of what “panic” means is based on an irrational group overreaction. But you can also have irrational group underreactions. (Imagine the Jewish family in 1936 who doesn’t leave Germany, because all their friends are staying.) There have been some entertaining experiments about this, ending up with a subject sitting silently in a group of experimenters, as a room fills with smoke and nobody else moves.

The problem is that most crisis situations involve things we’re not prepared for. We don’t have evolutionary programming for them (but we may freeze or run or attack something, based on what made sense when our threat model was mostly populated by big hungry animals and hostile spear-toting neighbors). And we often don’t have much of a script to go on in dealing with them personally. Often we don’t have enough information to evaluate what’s going on and make good decisions, even if we are otherwise capable of doing so.

another_bruce August 12, 2005 2:17 AM

“it’s time to end chatter about ‘panic’ and focus on ways to support public resilience in an emergency.”
whoa, there’s another loaded word, “emergency”. in the interest of our collective mental and emotional health and of avoiding, uh, public p***c, why don’t we denominate events strictly in terms of feelgood things and feelbad things?

piglet August 26, 2005 7:54 PM

I remember very wll when in the months before the Iraq invasion, a panic killed 21 people, in a disco in Chicago. I just looked up the link:

“An apparent fight between two women at a nightclub on Chicago’s South Side started a panic that resulted in the deaths of at least 21 people, but many people in Chicago are asking if the panic was escalated by fears of a possible terror attack and the nation’s heightened terror alert. (…) Other sources said that the phrase “terrorist attack” was also yelled out as the crowd’s fears only increased with the spread of the pepper spray or mace gases.” Remember that at the time (February 2003), Bush and all the media had hammered into those people that any moment, Saddam would attack them with weapons of mass destruction.

Is panic a myth? I don’t think so. Especially if you have a government that does everything it can to incite panic in the population.

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