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.