When in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout–or not so much
A very popular movie/TV trope that always makes me grit my teeth is that of mass panic in the public. You all know the setup: something has happened–a disaster, an alien landing, a virus… Eventually there is a scene where the government official/military person intones that they just can’t release information because there will be mass panic. People will rampage and quickly devolve into roving bands of vigilantes and cannibals.
There are certainly a number of examples of decently sized groups of people panicking. Often, these are in response to an immediate danger–like a fire in a building with too few exits. There are also lots of examples of wide spread disasters in which people don’t panic. In fact they do the opposite–they help people out, they work together. It turns out people are good at working together. It’s easy to think of positive examples: the Blitz in London, the San Francisco earthquake/fire, the recent earthquake in Japan, …. Now, try to think of an example of widespread mass panic–involving cities or entire regions. That’s not so easy. Maybe you’ll think of the War of the Worlds broadcast. Well, that is certainly often cited, but it turns out there wasn’t that much actual panic. I can’t really find any evidence that any such event has ever happened.
People will certainly move away from a source of immediate danger. But, once the immediate threat is done they don’t keep moving. There is an excellent essay on this very thing over on the Huffington Post.