Disasters: Human Behaviour

How Do People Behave During a Disaster?


Chatting with a friend last week, he told me he was stocking up on guns, ammo, and weapons… He said he’s planning for “when people start to turn on each other”. Maybe he’s seen too many doomsday movies.

During a crisis, do humans really turn to theft, violence and rioting?

Personally, I believe the opposite will happen. History shows that in times of disaster, people actually band together. Stress leads to bonding. People help people.

My past career was in disaster planning and emergency management, which largely involved studies around the human response to disasters. Here’s my perspective on our current pandemic, and how we will all get through this, together.


Stage 1: Information Sharing

As disasters start and red flags begin to pop up, the general public takes notice. Interest peaks and people try to learn as much information as possible. Humans love to share news and gossip, and it’s like a big game of telephone. Most information is correct. But some is over-exaggerated.

In disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis, Stage 1 is very short. People only have hours or minutes to learn what is happening, share threatening information, and act as fast as they can. Then they quickly jump into decision making.

In slow moving disasters like the current pandemic, this phase lasts weeks or months. People look for advice, news, and direction from others. Humans like to wait and see what others will do, before they decide what to do themselves. We’d rather be wrong together, than correct all alone.


Stage 2: Shit Gets Real

When people see and feel things first-hand, the disaster starts to hit home. A famous person is affected, a friend gets sick, or maybe your investments start to nose-dive… The disaster becomes personal.

This activates the fight-or-flight response and everyone reacts in different ways. Emotions are similar to the Grief Cycle and everyone goes through this process at different speeds (and not necessarily in this order)…

Denial & Avoidance: People make up their own mind instead of believing facts. They only read the news that they want to hear. Some people make memes and poke fun at others.

Anger & Frustration: As denial proves to be wrong, people start getting angry and defensive. We blame the government, others, and question the systems and infrastructure (or lack thereof). We lash out and get selfish. 

Bargaining & Finding Meaning: People feel humbled and hope becomes a strategy. Reflection and flashbacks on our own lives gives us a sense of relief. People share their stories and search for meaning. Some people turn to God.

Depression & Helplessness: The situation and news becomes overwhelming, and people begin to surrender and give up completely. They depend on others to make decisions for them.

Acceptance & Next Steps: Realizing the disaster is out of our control, we start to focus on what we can control. We make plans to move everyone forward. Humans band together and fight!



Stage 3: Empathy, Support & Bonding

The bonding begins when humans realize we are all in the same boat. We have a common enemy and must band together to survive. It’s proven that in large scale disasters, social networks matter more than physical resources. 

Neighbors help each other. Hoarders start to share or donate. Leaders emerge and give direction. Doctors, nurses, teachers, builders, hunters, gatherers… everyone contributes what they can to the community. Artists will express love and support via their art.

We’re already seeing signs of this today. Wealthy people are donating and giving. Italians are singing from their balconies to boost morale. Neighbors are communicating via Nextdoor to help the elderly and share resources with each other.


Stage 4: Recovery 

This is the stage where things actually start to get better. The disaster has stabilized, panic is for the most part gone, and everybody is re-building to get back to where they were. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Amazing things happen in this phase. Humans use technology to figure out better ways to live. They work together to fix mistakes that we’ve made in the past. We all move on from surviving → thriving.

In our current situation, nobody really knows where the “worst point” will be. Since there’s no cure for the flu, the brace-and-hold position may last for weeks, months, or years. Full recovery may not begin for a long while.


Stage 5: Business as Usual. Gone But Not Forgotten.

Disasters eventually pass. Humans move on. Although we never forget what happened, the past becomes history. Things go back to normal.

Although we are stronger as a result of disaster times, we are not immortal. Bad things will happen again. Some events we can prepare for, others will take us by surprise.

*It’s important to note that the time it takes to get to Stage 5 is dependent on the communication, strength, and obedience of the community. When people have good instructions and stick together, impacts are minimized and recovery time is shortened. If people act as individuals and are selfish, disasters can linger and effects are larger.


Put The Guns Away:

Stocking up on weapons is pointless. If people do turn against each other, it will be only for brief moments of individual selfishness. Irrational and extreme violence is a “disaster myth”.

Stress eventually leads to cooperative behavior. Humans have a profound need for social connection, and this bonding is how we will survive. By helping one another.

The sooner everyone gets on board, the more efficiently we can handle this pandemic.


Hang in there,

– Joel


8 thoughts on “Disasters: Human Behaviour

    • Cheers Dave, yes I liked your article today. I definitely think more people will change habits and cook at home when they realize how easy it is and how much money they save. Personally, I’d like to see a lot of households also try and grow their own vegetables. Especially in fertile and sunny states like California!

  • Everyone needs to read this today! Thanks for sharing and always being the bright spot first thing in the morning!

  • Hi joel, this is Ashish (friend of Gerard) in Adelaide. Thats a great post amid this global uncertainty. This side of humanity is least discussed which is sad, but Keep posting Joel, its worth reading wherever it reaches.

  • “Stocking up on weapons is pointless. If people do turn against each other, it will be only for brief moments of individual selfishness.”

    The most important part of that statement is “brief moments of individual selfishness”.

    For the most part I would say you are correct with most people just want to do the right thing and are willing to help out.

    However, what would a brief moment of individual selfishness cost you? For instance if someone was desperate enough to impose themselves on your way of life.

    I believe that this crisis will resolve relatively peacefully, but it makes most of us ask what if things progressively get worse because then there is a real chance that someone else (couldn’t possibly be us, right?) acts selfishly.

    As far as stocking up on guns and ammo…well if people are doing it now I would say most of them are more or less useless with whatever they are buying because clearly they did not have a self-defense mindset to begin with. I would even say those new gun hoarders will be a large part of the problem. Making a calculated threat analysis (let’s say on just one threat) and then taking a well placed shot under stress and severe time restraints is incredibly difficult in most situations.

    I agree that stocking up on firearms is pointless right now. Most people who are doing that should probably just work on their cardio instead of wasting money. Plus background checks are taking days in a lot states.

    I do think people should consider those moments of selfishness though. Being complacent in those moments could prove disastrous.

    Overall, I think most of us will be fine but never rule out contingencies.

    • Thanks Ben for the thoughtful response. I agree that being prepared is better than complacency. We’re all going to walk away with so many lessons learned after this. Take care and hang in there!

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