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Pouring Petrol on the Flames of Rumour and Panic

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The government has been spinning out of control in a 'petrol panic', not least because it's ignoring social psychological research, which now mathematically models and predicts what drives rumour and panic. The science behind spreading alarm, and how to end contagion, holds wider implications beyond empty forecourts; currency crises, banking collapses and stock market crashes turn on the psychology of panic.

One key finding is that because speed of action becomes crucial in a crisis - if you act too late you could be done for - the priority becomes gaining warning of hazards early. Information from official sources, for a variety of reasons, plummet in credibility. This is not just because the public are canny enough to realise officialdom may have its own agenda, which it's not sharing with us. More, this is because information everyone already has is less useful than data you have now, which no one else has yet. Getting ahead of the information curve becomes the top priority in a panic. Once everyone else knows what you know, you're done for in terms of any advantage to you of taking action, before your chosen escape route becomes inundated by the elbowing crowd.

In this predicament it's informational advantages which become most crucial. Incidentally this same principle, that knowledge you have which no one else has yet, is the most valuable of all, also explains why rumour often drives stock markets more than official data.

So in the middle of an epidemic of panic, we instinctively give higher credibility to something snatched and overheard, than an official broadcast. Another paranoia is, we're being left behind the data curve, there are people out there who really know what to do and what is going on, they're on the inside, and as we observe the panicking queues, we feel on the outside, and exposed.

Because speed is of the essence, it also becomes costly to pause, acquire and calmly evaluate information.

Following the Fukushima earthquake, nuclear leakage triggered rumours which swept China, US, Europe, Korea and the Philippines; the hearsay was taking iodine would prevent radiation contamination. Across the world, but particularly in China, panic buying of iodized salt swept across borders - supermarket shelves emptied while salt prices rocketed to five times their normal worth. In a study afterwards of almost 100,000 people from the affected areas, word of mouth was found to be the principal way the rumour spread (that consuming iodized salt prevented radiation contamination), while the second main source of information was non-official websites.

The social psychology of gossip means that in the middle of a panic, something someone tells you face to face has much higher credibility than any other source. In sharing this information, rather than keeping it to themselves, a confidante may be doing themselves a disservice, which means their advice instantly gains highest credibility. It's also all about bonding between people - which is a natural stress reaction. Our need to affiliate goes up dramatically when anxious.

So how to combat the contagion once it gets going? Mathematically modelling the spread of panic and rumour has revealed fascinating similarities with the speed viruses infect a population. When a new virus first hits, the rate of spread appears exponential, because the number of hosts who haven't been previously exposed, and therefore not acquired immunity, is large. But as the virus gains a foothold, it begins to encounter more and more hosts who've developed resistance, therefore the curve begins to plateau. The same applies to a rumour - the key analogy is to inoculate the host before the rumour arrives, so there is host resistance. Then the rumour won't get passed on. Hard facts from independent authoritative sources i.e. autonomous recognised experts are what extinguishes the rumour mill, which otherwise thrives on uncertainty.

For example, the decisive media event that dampened the iodized salt panic in China was when a TV broadcast pointed out nuclear contamination of sea water around China was not just very low, it was far less than background radiation that exists prior in nature. It was the high credibility nature of the facts on radiation generally, not just about the nuclear accident, which had most impact on the public.

If politicians insist on not using independent authoritative sources, then this simply pours gasoline on the flames of rumour, because it encourages the suspicion there's something to hide.

What we now know from genuine large scale crises, like tsunamis, hurricanes, fatal contagious diseases and earthquakes is that those who grasp the facts earliest, gain significantly higher survival rates, than those further behind the information wave. So it's only natural to become hyper-vigilant for new understanding and to take as a cue how others have started to act before you, in a crisis like the petrol panic.

The grave danger of the current alarm is that even after its over, and things have settled back to normal, public trust in Government and official sources is so shaken, when a genuine large scale emergency next hits, we'll invest less trust in our leaders, so further threatening social order at precisely the moment when it's most vulnerable.

Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych is a psychiatrist and appeared at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on Monday 2 April to discuss 'Swarm Intelligence' and other psychological phenomena, ProfessorAdrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at University College London.