The Real World

February 2010
  The Psychologist, 23 (2), 92.

Recently, one of us went to a meeting organised by the Cabinet Office to promote understanding of the ways in which people behave in emergencies — the shadows of 9/11 and of 7/7 loom long.

The meeting was dominated by computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists. They have developed complex models of flow which generate impressive simulations of people moving through public spaces: train stations, stadia, and the like. There is just one problem. These models treat people like mechanical objects. They ignore the fact that we are thinking feeling beings who strive to make sense of our worlds and act accordingly. They fail to appreciate that such things as where we go, how fast we walk, and how close we stand to others all depend upon meanings and relationships. They make for superb computer games, but their psychological validity is much more in doubt.

One consequence of this mechanical approach is that it encourages attempts to improve flow, avoid congestion, and eliminate crushing that are restricted to mechanical solutions such as widening exits or positioning barriers. But what about communication? Everyone agreed that the information given to people in an emergency is critical — after all, the single biggest factor in determining whether people survive is whether they believe messages telling them that there is an emergency. But no-one really understood how to tackle this problem. What messages should be given? Who should give them? How and when? As a result, the development of a comprehensive communication strategy came way down the list of priorities for planners.

Leaving the meeting with a colleague and entering into the Underground, we saw two police officers sprinting through the barriers. When we got to the platform, our train stopped, but its doors failed to open and then it left again. Announcements were made telling us that there was a security alert and we should leave the station immediately. But as we streamed out we saw just as many people still streaming in. At the entrance, electronic screens were still announcing that all trains were running normally. People were being invited in at the same time as they were being ordered out. When we pointed out the contradiction to nearby safety officers they shrugged. Yes it is daft, they said, but it is not our business.

With emergencies as with much else, there is a great deal for psychologists to contribute both theoretically and practically. This is very much our business. And as much as we need to recognize this ourselves, so we need others to recognize it too.