Do People Turn Selfish When Disaster Strikes?

There's a common idea in our society that when there is a disaster, people will get scared and turn into selfish, looting animals. That without a strong government, without something to keep people in check, they will ignore the law and the ethics that they tend to abide by in more stable times. In Neil Strauss's entertaining non-fiction book Emergency, he refers to himself as a "fliesian," meaning that the world is like The Lord of the Flies, where people will turn on each other when the going gets tough. Survival blogs and books talk of "The Golden Horde," which is supposed to represent the unprepared masses who will run across the land, taking whatever they can. How realistic is this?

The answer, based on some things I've been reading lately, is a bit complicated.

When People Get Better
The first part of the answer is shocking and unintuitive to anyone who has not lived through a disaster. Often, when a disaster strikes, people seem to instinctively form communities and help each other out. People will step outside and talk to their neighbours, share food, etc. This interesting reaction, as described in the interesting book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the goodwill that follows a tragic event, such as 9/11 or the huge earthquake in Mexico city, is astonishing. In fact, people reminisce about the community spirit they felt even years later.

The author of the book laments that the word "anarchy," which historically just meant "without government," now has come to be synonymous with the burning and rioting behaviour we see in movies. Not only can anarchy be peaceful, it can be better than normal times.

However, the government is made up of people who assume that people will turn into criminals. Often, as described in the book, the government's reaction to a disaster is a second disaster, shooting people who come near grocery stores (apparently there's no difference between going to an abandoned grocery store for food and using the disaster as an opportunity to steal a new television set.)

Sounds promising, doesn't it?

When People Get Worse
On the other hand, without any government at all, people sometimes appear to be quite savage. I have been reading Steven Pinker's great book on the decline of violence over the centuries The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In general, without police, people will prey on each other. Maybe not everybody, but enough to make society very dangerous.

Here is a great TED talk about organized crime. In Misha Glenny's theory, organized crime can take root especially well when a government collapses and there is a period of time in which the normal functions of government are not working and people need to turn to "privatized law enforcement," or organized crime. Even if a government is established afterward, just a bit of time without police infrastructure can result in a crime world that is hard to shake. The whole talk is great, but start watching at 4:00 if you're pressed for time.

Montreal is a relatively safe city, but a few hours into the police strike of 1969, there were six bank robberies, twelve arsons, one hundred lootings, and two homicides before emergency powers were called in (from Pinker's book). Pinker also makes a convincing case that the poor engage in more violence because the police tend to ignore violent crimes that poor commit against other poor. If people can't trust police to make things right, they resort to vigilante justice (violent crime).

What Sense Can We Make of This?
I am not an expert in history or disaster studies nor even the psychology of violence. That said, I will tell you my belief based on what I've been reading.

People will spontaneously help each other in a disaster for a short period of time (up to a few months, maybe?). In prolonged war, or failed government, however, there are enough people who will do bad things to make life pretty miserable for everybody.

If you live in a failed state, or in a prolonged war zone, be careful with other people.

But if there is an earthquake in your city, you don't need to sit on your stoop and shoot anyone who approaches.

They might be stopping by to see if you need any food.

A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life

Pictured: G20 London protest riot police. From Wikimedia Commons.

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