Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fire Drills

We've been talking about how human beings behave in groups, and as I continue to think about it I'm coming to the hypothesis that for human communities to be ruly, as opposed to unruly, they need rules, but I'm not sure if they also need rulers. In the last post I talked about an artificial example where groups (i.e. rows of people in a meeting room) self-organized around a common goal and set of constraints. I wasn't in the room so I don't know if there emerged in each row a natural leader, but it was definitely the case that apart from setting the initial goals and constraints, the fact that the task was not micromanaged from the stage at the front of the room added speed and efficiency.

I often think of the way Western people respond to disasters in buildings as maybe another example. Crowds around the world frequently get out of control and stampede or kill people in crushing injuries, and I'm not saying the US hasn't had its share of examples (the concert by The Who in Cincinnati, the Black Friday incident at Walmart).

But when you hear those examples of disasters where everyone kept cool and behaved in an orderly way, like the evacuation of that plane that Sully Sullenburger landed in the Hudson River and the passengers proceeded onto the wings to patiently wait for rescue, it makes me think of how we were all raised on school fire drills and their rules - don't run, walk in a single line, don't use elevators but use the stairs, help each other but fit your own mask first.  It makes me think that if we all hadn't grown up with all these rules, and with the practice of them that drilled them in, would we behave as well in groups in crisis? Or would we be more likely to devolve into stampedes that cause crushing injuries, or at least to do so more often?

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