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Research to explore crowd responses to bombings

The experiences of people caught up in the London bombings are to be used by university scientists to help emergency services tackle similar disasters in future.

Scientists from the Universities of St Andrews, Sussex and Nottingham have been looking at how people behave in disaster situations such as bombings and fires to help develop a simulation programme for use in emergency services training.

At the time of the London bombings, the team, comprising psychologists and computer scientists, were at the Royal Society Summer Science Fair in the capital, exhibiting their interactive virtual reality simulation of an evacuation from a London Underground station.

Their research showed that, while individuals may become distressed and fearful, crowd ‘panic’ is rare. Crowd members often develop a shared sense of identity through their common fate and this can spur them on to perform selfless or even heroic acts to help others.

The subsequent events in London supported their findings. Contrary to the popular myth of mass panic in crowds during emergencies, there were no such reports. The evacuations from the Underground system were typically calm and orderly, with numerous examples of people helping each other, even when faced with mortal danger.

In response to this, the researchers are hoping to hear from people affected by the London attacks, to develop their findings further, and have set up a website where people can record their experiences.

University of Sussex psychologist Dr Chris Cocking said, “A disaster such as a terrorist attack may encourage a sense of common humanity among people who might otherwise have no connection, and so total strangers will help each other out to escape a shared danger, even at great risk to themselves as individuals.”

It is hoped that the research can look at ways of improving safety during emergencies. While there has been much coverage of the collective spirit of Londoners, the researchers feel that this is a universal response to disaster common in all humanity, as was seen in New York after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

For more information, contact Dr Chris Cocking, University of Sussex – telephone 01273 872877 or e-mail cpc20@sussex.ac.uk. Alternatively, press officers Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing – telephone01273 678209 or email M.T.Clune@sussex.ac.uk or J.A.Bealing@sussex.ac.uk

OR Dr Steve Reicher, University of St Andrews – via Press Officer Claire Grainger – telephone 01334 462530 or email cg24@st- andrews.ac.uk

Enquiries about the VR simulation – contact Dr Damian Schofield, University of Nottingham – telephone 0115 951 4084 or email dzs@cs.nott.ac.uk

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