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Social and behavioural

Blaming the victims?

Ella Rhodes and Jon Sutton look to psychology for causes and solutions around the tragic crush in Saudi Arabia.

25 September 2015

The horrific crush near the holy city of Mecca, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the valley of Mina, killed 717 people and injured more than 850 others. Press coverage quickly focused on 'panic' and 'stampede', but is the 'mindless mass' really to blame for such tragedies?

Professor Steve Reicher (St Andrews University) told us that the problem lay in crowd physics management rather than crowd psychology. 'Claims of inevitability are using excuses for doing, and having done, nothing… descriptions like "panic" and "stampede" suggest that the problem lay in irrational crowd psychology or behaviour. Yet there is little evidence of anyone "rushing wildly", as is the nature of a stampede. In fact, in events such as this the problem is that people can't run anywhere.'

When crowds meet a certain density of around four people per square metre, Professor Reicher explains, any push or shove results in waves passing through the crowd. Another issue, he said, is that is people at the front fall or meet an unexpected barrier; those behind may carry on moving leading to a 'catastrophic' build-up of pressure. Dr Clifford Stott (University of Leeds) added: 'While we still don't know the full details it appears the authorities allowed crowds from different directions to converge on a single location that itself was a confined space. Much like the Hillsborough disaster this would have created fatal pressures that no-one could have escaped from.' There is also growing evidence that two paths near the site of the accident had been closed off for 'unknown reasons'. 'This points to the fact that in many disasters, the problem lies in the way that certain exits are blocked off,' Reicher said.

On top of this, Reicher added, there were issues with group psychology, trust and respect of authorities. 'We know that Islam is a house divided. Previously that was not seen to be too significant at the Hajj. Whether it was a factor in the tragedy, we don't know yet. But what we can see is that the tragedy has affected socio-political divisions. Iran, for instance, has attacked the Saudi regime for mishandling the Hajj. Since the whole legitimacy of the Saudi regime rests on being "custodians of the two mosques" this is potentially of huge geopolitical significance.'

A large-scale survey of pilgrims at the Hajj, by Dr John Drury (University of Sussex) and Hani Alnabulsi and published in PNAS, has shown that the effect of density on feeling safe is moderated by social identification. If a person felt part of the crowd of pilgrims they didn't fear crowding and, in fact, felt safer in denser spaces – because they felt that they were alongside people like themselves who would support them. Reicher said: 'This could potentially lead people into risk taking and attract them to dangerous spaces. I would stress, though, that compared to issues of crowd flow and management this is relatively minor.'

So how can the risk of such tragedies be reduced? Dr Stott says: 'The solutions do not lie in increasing coercion and security measures, nor merely in addressing the infrastructure, but also in facilitating awareness and communication with and among crowds.' In this sense Reicher highlights the need to see crowd members as part of the solution to disasters and not just the problem. Studies have found that, far from panicking, and looking after oneself at the expense of others, in disasters people come together and help each other often at severe risks to themselves. 'So we should examine the role of crowd members as 'first responders', as helping to deal with the aftermath of the crushing,' Reicher concluded.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims were killed in another crush, also in Mina. Back then, pilgrims were blamed before the finger was pointed at poor management as the primary problem. 'Most crowd safety experts would say "accidents" are due to mismanagement,' Dr Drury told us.