Conventional Beliefs and Counterintuitive Realities

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The New School for Social Research
This paper discusses major myths and widely held incorrect beliefs about individual and group behaviors in disaster contexts. Why can we categorize such views as invalid? Because now there has been more than half a century of systematic social science studies (and an earlier half century of less well known scattered works) that have established the actual parameters of the behavior of individuals and groups in natural and technological disaster situations (for recent summaries of the extensive research literature, see Lindell, Perry, and Prater, 2006; National Research Council, 2006; and Rodriguez, Quarantelli, and Dynes, 2006). All is not known, and serious gaps remain in knowledge about important topics, but we are at this time far beyond just educated guesses on many dimensions of the relevant behaviors. Our focus is on six different behavioral aspects of disasters, primarily occurring around the impact time period of such crises. Stated in just a few words, we look at panic flight and at antisocial looting behavior, supposed passivity in emergencies, role conflict and abandonment, severe mental health consequences, and the locus of whatever problems surface. We present what is often assumed, believed, or stated on these matters—at least in popular discourse and to a varying extent in policy, planning, and operational circles—as over against what study and research has found.
Collective Behavior, Disaster Response
Originally published as "Conventional Beliefs and Counterintuitive Realities" in Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences, Volume 75, Number 3 (Fall 2008) pp 873-904. Used with permission of Social Research <>