It appears that contrary to conventional wisdom (fed by “media narratives and Hollywood disaster flicks,” says Waldman) emergencies do not bring out the worst in us.
Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature. Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report [PDF] put it, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.
Yet, adds Waldman, the myth of people behaving badly in disasters persist:
We expect anarchy when an emergency hits and get confused when civilization doesn’t come apart at the seams. Part of the blame lies with the media. Sociologists Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski have outlined “reporting conventions that lead media organizations … to focus on dramatic, unusual, and exceptional behavior, which can lead audiences to believe such behavior is common and typical.”* Anomaly or not, a theft caught on tape makes for more compelling viewing than endless footage of rain. What’s more, they argue, news outlets narrate disasters through a “looting frame.” They intersperse relevant details with boilerplate commentary like “the National Guard has been brought into [name of community] to keep the peace” — implying that, without the National Guard, scofflaws would be running rampant.
Disasters do, however, bring out the worst in some people, writes Waldman:
They spook the people who have the most to lose if society changes shape. Disaster scientists have christened this phenomenon elite panic: “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.” While public, disaster-zone panic is mostly an illusion, elite panic manifests in the “command-and-control” measures a government often takes after a natural disaster, including shoot-to-kill orders and the deployment of heavily-armed “relief” forces. President Bush dispatched hundreds of troops in camouflaged battle gear to supervise post-Katrina New Orleans. Rather than convey food and water to victims, these assault rifle-bearing soldiers stood guard at street intersections and prevented the sick and needy from leaving. The storm had devastated Louisiana physically, but elite panic turned it into a cauldron of suspicion, wasted human resources and reactionary violence. It laid bare the costs of our disaster myths.
You’ll find Waldman’s article on Slate’s website.