Collective behavior is a term used to describe the phenomenon where existing social structures are broken by a group of people acting in an unusual way that then becomes the norm for that group. This can be something like a craze (in which a group of people take up an unusual hobby) or much more destructive, as in mob behavior. One of the situations in which collective behavior can emerge is in a disaster. When a disaster occurs, such as a nuclear explosion, earthquake or flood, people’s lives are disrupted in such a way that they tend to stop following social norms. This is because existing social structures are not designed to deal with this type of disruption. Disasters can also produce panic which makes people act in ways that are not considered to be “normal” (Pastel, 2002). The purpose of this paper is to explore the links between collective behavior and disasters, particularly over the long-term sense.

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The main theory behind long-term responses to disasters is that the group of people affected will change as a result and will all act in similar but unusual ways (Pastel, 2002). Pastel (2002) found evidence that there are many different “symptoms” that can be observed in groups of individuals who are affected by a disaster – these include nausea and headaches – that are not explained by a medical condition. These occur as a response to the disaster and occur at random in the affected group, but can be described as an “unusual” response to an event. Kilijanek & Drabek (1979) found similar information in a study on elderly people after the 1966 Topeka tornado – people affected were likely to have physiological responses to the recent stress.

Aguirre, Wenger & Vigo (1998) used results from the World Trade Centre explosion in 1993 to test the emergent norm theory in relation to the behavior of those affected by disaster. Emergent norm theory states that the collective behavior observed in groups is because groups tend to be those who have similar mindsets (in this case, people who work in the World Trade Centre likely have similar interests), feel anonymous and have shared emotion. Aguirre et al showed that the order in which people were evacuated and behaviors following the explosion were dominated by existing social groups. It was shown that social relationships are perhaps the most important factor in determining social behaviors, even in the context of this type of unusual event.

Mawson (2005) examined the biological basis for mass panic and the resulting collective behaviors in unusual situations. Like Aguirre et al (1998), it was found that existing social relationships were important for forming the basis of collective behavior – the first response is to seek those who are familiar. Mawson suggests that people are less likely to flee if they have not found the comfort of familiarity first as the stress of losing a loved one is much higher than the danger of the event. This suggests that sociologically, the behaviors that emerge in the disaster situation are definitely a result of emergent norm theory as similar people who have similar emotions will be sought out and behaviors then emerge from this grouping.

Overall, it is evident that people do show evidence of collective behavior as a result of disasters. The main sociological theory associated with this is emergent norm theory, which suggests that there are a combination of factors involved in the emergence of these behaviours. Additionally, people seem to have physiological responses such as headaches and nausea which again may drive the emergence of collective behaviors. It is evident that the theory behind the emergence is complex but based on existing social relationships and may be defined by collective emotions and beliefs that drive the behavior after a disaster situation.

Personally, I believe there are a number of elements that go into the development of behaviors and new norms post-disaster. Obviously, the main element of the emotions involved is panic – panic drives people to act unusually. For example, it would seem sensible from an outsider’s perspective to seek out safety. Many people, however, do not do this – they stay near the danger zone to seek out friends and relatives or to help those who are unable to help themselves. There are always heroes following a disaster and these are not always the people who you would pinpoint before the disaster. This seems to be another theme that runs through the research – people do not always behave in the way that we would expect from them before the incident.

It is also very interesting to me that disasters lead to physiological symptoms such as headaches and nausea. This seems to me as though it could be a response to the stress of the disaster but also seems like evidence of a collective behavior because the research suggests it is almost universal amongst victims. Perhaps the development of this type of symptom could be a factor in the development of a collective norm – these people will share a certain emotion (pain or nausea, for example) and this could lead them to act in certain ways. It is highly unlikely that a group of people will share this type of “symptom” in a non-disaster situation so it is interesting to learn that this may play a part in behaviors. Overall, I think there is still a lot of research to be done on the topic, such as more specifically on big disasters, but it is interesting to see the development of group panic as an element in collective behaviors.