About 20 years ago someone wrote a book proposing that we, as a society, had become afraid to scream. We overvalue feeling and appearing as though we are in control, to the point that we are willing to put ourselves in danger to hold on to it. The title, the author, and the book itself were lost to my memory a long time ago, but the theme stuck with me. Are we afraid to scream? Would we rather look and feel in control than be safe?
An article published recentlyby the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center derided a group of people who had evacuated an airport terminal after hearing what sounded like gunshots. The article used terms like “panic” and “overreaction” about that incident and others that were very similar. This leads to two questions: Did the people in those incidents panic or overreact; and what is the reasonable response to hearing a noise that might be gunshots in the world today?
Do people panic? Yes, but not nearly as often as they are described as panicking, or expected to panic. The definition of panic varies, but in general it is an overwhelming fear that prevents rational thought (feelingsof panic), which leads to irrational action (panicking). You can be nervous, anxious, or afraid, but if you are still able to thinkrationally you are not panicking. There is no indication that anyone in the airport incident panicked.
How about overreacting? That depends on the answer to the second question. What is the most appropriate response to hearing a sound like gunshots? Wait and see what happens next? Go closer and investigate? Or calmly move away from the area?
Let’s look at those three options. In the early stages of an emergency, there is often very little information and decisions must be made quickly. Waiting to see what happens next is the equivalent ofmuting your smoke detector the first time it goes off.In a short fuse event like a mass shooting (or a flash flood, a fire, a tornado, etc.) you may only have minutes or seconds to react.
Going closer to investigate is even riskier, if the event is real. This is where our fear of giving up control is at its most dangerous. Most of us have a normalcy bias that makes us downplay risk. It makes us overconfident in our own abilities because we don’t have an accurate picture of what the emergency would actually be like. Going closer to an unknown situation makes you feel brave and in control, rather than uncertain and fearful. You reduce the likelihood that you will look foolish if the hazard is real, but increase your chances of being injured or killed by that hazard at the same time.
Moving in an orderly way to an area that offers more shelter is, physically, the lowest-risk response; but it puts us at a higher risk of appearing fearful and foolish. Would you be afraid to be the one to stand up and say, “Maybe it’s nothing, but I’d feel better if we got out of this area until we find out more,”?
The odds that any one of us will be involved in a mass shooting incident are small, but it is virtually certain that another one of these attacks will take place, and someone is going to be near enough to hear the sound. Whatever the potential emergency is, listen to your first warning and take steps to make yourself safer before looking for more information.
Taking a realistic look at what could happen in an emergency shouldn’t make us afraid and having an idea what we would do ahead of time makes us more likely to take safe action. Check out www.do1thing.com for an emergency preparedness program that is easy and inexpensive, or find another emergency preparedness program that works for you.