Beware Panic Panic

Peter Sandman says it is officials, not citizens, who needlessly panic:

[There are] people who do think avian flu is serious but don't think the public should take it seriously. That's a position held by a number of people in the government and a number of people in a number of governments who argue that, yes, we the government are going to prepare, but for God's sake don't tell the public, because . . . they might get excessively frightened, and that might be bad for their psychology and bad for the economy. God forbid people should be afraid just because they're going to be dead. As the economists earlier on pointed out, it doesn't hurt the economy all that much for a lot of people to die, but if a lot of people get frightened, that's bad for business! So, there's a sense that we dare not frighten people. The other base in this argument says, "It's serious but let's not say so," [because] there's nothing for people to do anyhow. … What I want to do with the rest of my time is rebut those two arguments.

If you ask yourself which was a bigger problem in New Orleans, people so frightened they couldn't think straight, or people insufficiently frightened who didn't get out of town, I think you can make a very strong argument that the latter was a bigger problem than the former. … In the stairwells of the World Trade Center, people were more courteous than New Yorkers usually are, and more organized than New Yorkers usually are, and there were very few signs of panic among those who evacuated the Twin Towers. . . . When you interview the survivors, the vast majority tell you they panicked, but they didn't. They're wrong. They felt like panicking, and they did just fine.

Panic, in short, is rare. But official "panic panic" is common. That is, officials often imagine that the public is panicking or about to panic. And in order to allay panic, officials sometimes do exactly the wrong thing from a crisis communication perspective: They withhold information, they over-reassure, they express contempt for public fears, etc.

Panic is quite rare. What's quite common is denial; denial is why panic is rare. … If people are insufficiently afraid, they don't take precautions. If people are excessively afraid, they don't take precautions. They don't panic either. They go into denial and sit around saying, "It'll happen to somebody else."

So why do officials needlessly fear public panic?  I suspect what officials really fear is that citizens will blame them for whatever bad thing is happening; the panic thing is just an excuse to avoid looking bad.  Hat tip to Tyler and Toby Ord.

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  • Martin

    OH GOD I HADN’T HEARD ABOUT PANIC PANIC BEFORE!!! WHAT IF IT GETS HERE!!! WHAT IF IT HAPPENS TO MY CHILDREN??? MAYBE I SHOULD JUST KILL THEM NOW TO SPARE THEM THE PAIN!!! AAAAAAAH!!!

  • josh

    I’m developing infinite panic regress panic.

  • CannibalSmith

    Oh no, the officials are about to panic out of fear we would panic! I’m in panic panic panic!

  • http://econstudentlog.wordpress.com US
  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com caveat bettor

    I thought it was about media outlets trying to sell advertising to stir things up, and then the politicians needing to respond to maintain voter constituencies. You know, wag the dog.

  • Will

    US, excellent XKCD, as always.

    “That’s a position held by a number of people in the government and a number of people in a number of governments who argue that, yes, we the government are going to prepare, but for God’s sake don’t tell the public, because . . . they might get excessively frightened, and that might be bad for their psychology and bad for the economy.”

    But didn’t we see officials publicly panicking during the height of the financial crisis? Bush, Bernanke and Paulson all gave very nervous public speeches both before and after Lehman.

    Is a financial crisis somehow different than an epidemic, regarding the manipulation of public opinion? It might be. Since we think we designed the economy, we’re more likely to think we can do something to fix it. An epidemic, on the other hand, is a threat external to humanity.

  • Juliana

    What I’m afraid of, is what else is happening in the world that we’re not hearing about because we’re all too busy talking about this disease that’s going to kill a handful of people, just like tons of other diseases do all the time?

  • Aurini

    This was one of the lessons included during my military training in urban ops: that citizens (Canadians, anyway) don’t panic. During national emergencies, such as the Quebec ice storm, they’ve always cooperated with an organized and efficient government task force.

  • Grant

    Mightn’t government officials fear panic because it deprives them of control and power? If you believe you know what is best for the populace, the last thing you’d want to have happen is the populace to act on its own accord (which they WILL do if frightened enough, regardless of attempts to stop them).

    I’m not sure I find the argument that officials want to avoid looking bad to be persuasive. The public generally finds out about any event big enough to “cause a panic” anyway, even if officials can keep it under wraps temporarily.

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  • Karen Patrick

    There is currently a ban on the importing of birds and bird products
    from countries affected with influenza A viruses. No one may import
    birds, or products derived from birds (including hatching eggs), from
    the specified countries.

    Karen