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Perceived threats and 'stampedes' – a relational model of collective fear responses

This research will seek to gain a better understanding of public behaviour when faced with perceived hostile threats.  This will enable emergency services, government organisations and the public themselves to be better prepared in these events.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Professor Clifford Stott
Police region
West Midlands
Collaboration and partnership


  • Professor John Drury University of Sussex School of Psychology
  • Professor Stephen Reicher University of St Andrews School of Psychology
  • Dr Holly Carter Public Health England Health Protection
  • Dr Fergus Neville University of St Andrews Management
  • Dr Anne Templeton University of Edinburgh School of Philosophy & Language
  • Dr Enrico Ronchi Lund University Fire Safety Engineering


Level of research
Professional/work based
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

The overall aim of the research is to provide a new and improved understanding of the social psychology of dangerous crowd flight, which occurs in response to perceived hostile threats.

Specific objectives

  1. Produce systematic evidence on the nature and dynamics of 'stampedes' in response to perceived hostile threats.

  2. Develop and test a new, relational model of collective fear responses to perceived hostile threats, using multiple methods and types of data.

  3. Show how this model helps make sense of key historical and contemporary 'stampede' incidents.

  4. Design and build a Virtual Reality based experiment that tests the role of key variables that impact on perception of threat and sudden flight behaviour.

  5. Explain the impact of different emergency services interventions on public response in the context of perceived threats, based on design, observation and analysis of emergency services exercises.

  6. Combine this theory and evidence to provide new learning and guidance for relevant government and emergency services end-users to enable them to prepare for and respond more effectively, thereby to boost public safety.

The increased incidence of public flight in response to perceived hostile threats means that this project is timely for a number of government bodies. The challenge for the authorities is how to maintain public alertness and build trust in their communications to the public, but at the same time avoid acting in ways that amplify risk unnecessarily.

Currently, the lack of adequate understanding of public behaviour in these incidents is a problem for the emergency services and the bodies that advise them. This research will significantly enhance the evidence-base on public behaviour in these events.

The benefit for the emergency services, the organizations that provide guidance, and the public themselves is more efficient preparedness and response, and ultimately greater public safety.  They will benefit through developing understanding of public information needs in the immediate aftermath of a possible incident.

Through improving their scenarios, they will be better able to test the credibility of their planning assumptions, planning arrangements and training infrastructure.

The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) is the department of the Cabinet Office responsible for emergency planning. The research will provide information CCS have requested, such as how the public respond to threats in different locations and the role of different sources of information. This will help the CCS with recommendations on communication with the public.

Public Health England (PHE) is an executive agency sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care. They design and commission exercises and provide guidance on likely public behaviour in the event of an emergency. They will benefit from the improvements in terms of psychological realism we will be able to provide to exercise planning.

The research will be beneficial to those who manage crowd safety, including at music events, transport hubs and shopping centres, in the UK and internationally. Professionals involved in engineering and design for evacuations will also benefit, enabling them to develop more effective and accurate evacuation models.

Relatedly, the research will benefit regulatory frameworks, and is likely to inform discussion about the new Green Guide to safety at sports grounds.

Research methodology

We will have a number of strategies to coordinate, integrate and synthesise the research findings.


Most of the team have worked together in similarly-structured and mixed-method programmes of research; and we share the same theoretical perspective.


We will have fortnightly team meetings by Skype to share and coordinate findings. The PI will lead coordination by chairing these meetings and providing guidance to each individual WP. In addition, the three PDRFs will Skype together also fortnightly to discuss shared issues in relation to the overall research questions.


We expect the different studies will together provide convergent evidence for each aspect of the relational model; PI will lead the synthesis of the findings, collating evidence from each strand to test the model.


We will integrate the findings from the three WPs by producing both an end-user report and an integrative review (i.e., journal paper) that will provide a single narrative account of the social psychology of perceived threats and ‘stampedes’.

Feasibility – risks and mitigations

We have a proven track-record in all of the types of research design proposed: archive analysis, oral history and data triangulation; experimentation on crowd processes, VR for studying evacuation behaviour, collaborative research with the emergency services.

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