As we remember 7/7, it’s time we learned to trust the crowd

Commuters walk the streets after the attacks. Gareth Fuller/PA

On the morning of 7 July 2005, we were on the platform at Waterloo East tube station. We were our way to the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition to present our research on crowd behaviour in emergencies. But, before we got there, we were evacuated from the tube, alongside thousands of other commuters during rush-hour, without being told why. We took the rest of our journey that day on foot, among the crowds of people doing the same. It was slightly surreal to see so many people walking across London on their way to work that morning.

It wasn’t till later that we discovered why we had been evacuated (the Royal Society Exhibition was poorly attended that day, for obvious reasons): four suicide bombers had attacked London’s underground transport system, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700. But, as well as our shock and sadness for those who had been killed, we had a deep interest in finding out more about the reactions of survivors.

Over the following months, we conducted interviews with survivors and witnesses of the bombings and gathered data about their experiences. We found that, despite the fear and the danger people had faced on that day, cooperation and help was common. People were courteous and kind, and personal selfishness was relatively rare – far less common, it seems, than a typical rush-hour on the London Underground.

British bulldog spirit?

One of the ideas which dominated at the time was that the fortitude seen in the public reaction – including some moving stories of heroism – was something unique to the “bulldog spirit” of the British. Had the bombings happened elsewhere, it was suggested, then there wouldn’t have been such resilience. But in fact, we thought that the solidarity among survivors that day told us about the psychological capacities of crowds in general. We argued that a crowd which shares an identity – a sense of “us” – is one in which its members will look out for each other, even if they didn’t know each other.

Another image that often accompanies emergencies is that of “mass panic” – the idea that, when a crowd faces danger, irrationality and abandonment of social rules inevitably follow. Mass panic is only one of a number of representations of crowd psychology that characterise “mobs” as either “mad” or “bad”. These representations exist in everyday talk, in disaster movies, in newspaper headlines – and sometimes even in emergency planning guidance. But the events of 7/7 exposed these ideas about crowds as falsehoods.

Like 9/11 before it, this emergency reinforced the need for some form of “community resilience”. The logic goes that, because the number of emergencies is said to be increasing, and because professional responders cannot be expected to arrive in time or in sufficient numbers, the public should rely on their own collective resources to cope and recover. While such “communities” are usually thought of as geographical groups or pre-existing networks of people, our analysis of the response to 7/7 showed that crowds can sometimes operate as psychological communities.

As a result, we referred to survivors as “the fourth emergency service” and “zero responders”. In fact, the same point is recognised in the government’s own guidance on community resilience, which refers to crowds as “communities of circumstance, whereby people are unlikely to have the same interests or come from the same geographical area but may form a community in the aftermath of an event”.

Bouncing forward

The term “resilience” is often taken as a conservative concept, and the metaphor of “bouncing back” can reinforce this view, as the focus is on accepting the status quo and adjusting to the adverse situations that individuals and communities can find themselves in. But a better metaphor might be the ability to “bounce forward”, as it suggests that something new can arise from the event.

It was notable that it was a new collective identity which emerged among many survivors – not the maintenance of an existing one. Some survivors used this shared identity that emerged from 7/7 as a basis for a mutual support group and to campaign for the government to recognise their needs.

Some are commemorating the tenth anniversary of 7/7 by asking Londoners to get off public transport a stop early and walk together to work. We think this can also serve as a reminder of the spontaneous way in which Londoners came together on that terrible day. But the spontaneous formation of crowds can also highlight a potential problem for those in authority. While emergency planners may need crowds and other informal groups, they also sometimes fear them because of their potential to organise autonomously.

The same capacities that are the basis of collective resilience – capacities such as mutual social support based on a shared social identity – are also the basis of collective empowerment. These autonomous groups may have the power to make demands on the government – or to demonstrate that the government is redundant.

For example, in Rachel Solnit’s description of the emergent communities that came together in response to such disasters as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it is clear that they were often treated as a potential threat. At times, these crowds were ruthlessly suppressed by the National Guard, which entered the disaster zones to “restore order”.

Crowds can form communities, and it’s right that they’re increasingly seen as potential partners in emergency planning. But there is still a deep-seated unease towards them in the corridors of power. As we have argued elsewhere, we believe that society has some way to go, before it will overcome its fear of the crowd. Surely, the anniversary of 7/7 is a time for such reflection.