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The conventional wisdom is that people panic during disasters. Worse, it’s assumed that many people immediately become feral looters when disasters hit. Widespread panic has become the government’s worst nightmare. The boogey man that is trotted out to explain why governments need to lie (in order to keep people from panicking) or why military intervention/curfews are necessary.

However, as with stampeding crowds, the conventional wisdom on this is wrong. Rebecca shows in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that people don’t typically panic when they find themselves at the ground zero of a disaster (after the immediate danger is over). Through the use of detailed research on a number of extreme disasters, she shows that in most cases people are very practical when confronting disaster. Better yet, they are often more courteous and much more likely to help each other when things fall apart than they are normally. They come together to survive.

In contrast to the people on the ground, she shows that the only people that actually do panic during disasters are the elites — from those with wealth to those running the government’s response (I’m not talking about the first responders actually on the ground doing good work). They panic over the loss of control a disaster brings. This often results in extreme actions that only serve to make things worse: from martial law authorized to use deadly force against looters (often just people trying to survive the situation) to arbitrarily hearding people into locations that aren’t able to support large groups of people.