How Do People Really Behave When Disaster Strikes?

There are a lot of reasons why people prep for disasters, but there’s one reason that’s far more popular than the others. What people fear most when they think about what would happen if society collapsed, isn’t hunger, disease, or exposure. They fear what other people might do to them when the chips are down.They worry that members of their community might hurt or kill them to survive.

And though most preppers won’t admit it, I think most of us fear what we might be capable of in a bad situation. We don’t have to find out if we have enough food stocked up in our pantries.

However, it should be noted that there is an alternate view on what most people will do if society collapses. For historians who study disasters and social collapse, there is hope that people won’t automatically turn into savages if the grid goes down. A writer for Slate recently interviewed several experts on this topic, and here’s what they had to say:

Can this ray of sunshine be trusted? I’d love to believe it can be. I asked Scott Knowles, a historian of disaster, what historians and sociologists who study collapses and disasters have to say. His answer: It depends. “We help, and also we don’t,” Knowles said in an email to me.

Over the years, academic researchers have gone back and forth on the question. “This whole area of work really got going in the Cold War when defense planners wanted to model post-[nuclear] attack scenarios,” Knowles wrote. The Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University (which has since moved to the University of Delaware) “did the work over years to model community response, and they pushed back strongly on the idea of social collapse—they found instead too much of the opposite—people converge on a disaster scene!”

And there are countless examples of people being altruistic and coming together during disasters; perhaps even more so than examples of people turning on each other.

In a 1961 paper (unpublished until 1996), sociologist Charles Fritz laid out the case for this “contrary perspective” that disasters and other majorly stressful events don’t necessarily result in social breakdown and trauma.

Fritz, who had begun his observations of disasters while stationed in Britain during the Blitz, reported that during that time he saw “a nation of gloriously happy people, enjoying life to the fullest, exhibiting a sense of gaiety and love of life that was truly remarkable,” with Britons reaching beyond class distinctions, sharing supplies, and talking to people they had never spoken with before.

Marshaling sociological and historical evidence, Fritz recounts example after example of people pulling together in the middle of tragedy: black and white police and militia members uniting to maintain order during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878; enemies forgetting old quarrels during the German bombing of Krakow in World War II; community members reporting strengthened personal relationships with neighbors after the White County, Arkansas, tornado of 1952.

In general, researchers agree that people will try to form alliances and help each other.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. If humans didn’t have an inclination towards supporting each other, then we wouldn’t have a sophisticated society to begin with.

However, I think we all know that there is a dark side to our species as well, and many of the examples provided by the author don’t reflect that. It is true that we are a social species whose members would rather work together to build a society, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t disasters which could easily bring out the worst in us.

The best example that comes to my mind, is the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two. For more than two years, the city was encircled by German forces who cut off all supplies to the city. This lead to the deaths of more than a million civilians, mainly due to starvation. And during that time there were thousands of people who were arrested for murdering others for their ration cards, or killing strangers and family members before cannibalizing them. And in most cases, these people were found to have no criminal records when they were caught.

Point being, there are disasters that will drive ordinary people to commit heinous crimes, and there’s a big difference between those incidents, and the disasters that don’t lead to massive crime waves. In most cases, a destructive event only leads to temporary disruptions to the supply of food, medicine and fuel. People are happy to work together, knowing that everything will return to normal in short order.

But on the rare occasion that a disaster disrupts the flow of goods and energy for months or years at a time, a significant percentage of the population will turn on their neighbors to survive. There’s a direct relationship between how desperate people are, and how far they’re willing to abandon their morality to keep themselves and their family fed, and that’s something that preppers should never forget.

Joshua Krause was born and raised in the Bay Area. He is a writer and researcher focused on principles of self-sufficiency and liberty at Ready Nutrition. You can follow Joshua’s work at our Facebook page or on his personal Twitter.

Joshua’s website is Strange Danger

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published July 7th, 2017
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13 Responses to How Do People Really Behave When Disaster Strikes?

  1. Freeholder1776 says:

    How people will react to a disaster depends upon what kind and how severe the disaster is, where these people are located and what kind of people they are (thugs will always be thugs, etc). A long term disaster is likely to bring out the worst in most people.

    Rural folks tend to stick together and help each other out. They are members of a community and that is what it will take to survive, let alone thrive, during apocalyptic events.

    No one is likely to make it on their own.

  2. UncleCarm says:

    At this moment, the two things I see that would push the boundaries of humanity are an event that would: 1) Result in a power outage that lasted for months or years. This would affect food production and distribution, among many other problems. 2) That the calamity was so bad that prisons were emptied, either by the warden or by the prisoners themselves. Most prisoners are slightly less benevolent than the rest of society. Plus, they would have a gang structure already in place.
    In this scenario, you might be better off shooting first and asking questions later. Anything less than the above scenario, and I think most people would pull together, with varying levels of success, but at leas they would try.

  3. Yoda Dunbar says:

    In a perfect World it would be great to think we would band together and get through any disaster as a community, all depends on circumstances, if your child is dying from hunger or thirst and you know that friends or neighbours have some, and they are not sharing, then all bets are off. Many in survival mentality will have the mindset we saw this coming, we scrimped and scraped for many months or yrs to get enough to survive, so why didn’t you see the big picture, why didn’t you prepare, and now something awful has happened you want everything I have at no cost, remember many preppers etc are not wealthy, don’t have farms or land, and have struggled for yrs to make life ok for their Own.
    If it starts to go over many months and ppl are dying in the streets because the Gov’t didn’t bail them out, they will become violent IMO.
    We saw it in Haiti, all that aid that was sent there, mostly ended up in the hands of gangs or corrupt officials, with only a small portion getting to the needy
    All we can do is pray and hope it never comes, then we see Venezuela and their SHTF is happening now

  4. Bolofia says:

    My principal model for gauging the behavior of people after a societal/economic collapse (aka, a SHTF event) is to look at what happened after ghetto riots in LA, Detroit, Baltimore, etc. and major power outages in places like NYC. It didn’t take much more than a half hour for sociopathic thugs to start looting and burning stores and attacking police. Call it what you wish, but I will call it Chicago on steroids.

  5. Mic Roland says:

    A lot depends on the circumstances of the SHTF. In the classic wartime scenarios, people band together in a spirit of solidarity against a known foe. They also know they have a government that is fighting for them. (Whether it be British citizens amid the Blitz or German citizens amid the Dresden bombings.)

    In a longer-term SHTF, grid-down, if the populace feels little hope that the government will rescue them, they’ll get desperate and afraid. When the foe isn’t obvious Nazi bombers, but maybe strangers, terrorists, etc. in the woods, there’ll be more fear and suspicion than open-arms altruism.

    Humans can endure a lot of hardship, IF they think it’s temporary. If they get to thinking it’s the ‘new normal’, the rules change.

    — Mic

  6. F. Friedrich Kling says:

    Interesting that you focus on the “bad German people”, yet you entirely overlook the worst bombing campaign in history when the allies firebombed Dresden, Germany and in one night’s period incinerated 130.000 German civilians and, ironically, Allied POWs. Even worse, Dresden was of no military significance and the war was all but over. The city was bloated with women, children, and the elderly desperately trying to escape the Russians.

    • Bolofia says:

      The actual death toll, which was established by city officials in Dresden after this series of raids, was 25,000. The number you used is incorrect, but is moderately lower than the NAZI propaganda number of 200,000 plus. Dresden was a strategic target for several reasons:
      1. Extensive railroad marshalling yards.
      2. 110 factories employing more than 50,000 workers in support of the war effort.
      3. It was a communications center.
      One of the principal Allied objectives was to destroy the capacity of the NAZI war machine. No bullets and no ball bearings = no Wermacht. Your claim that Dresden was of no military significance is irrelevant. You seem to have a curious bias toward revisionist history.

      • F. Friedrich Kling says:

        The actual death toll? Cite your source, which you did not do. Further, historians agree Dresden was neither important to German wartime production nor a major industrial center, and before the massive air raid of February 1945 it had not suffered a major Allied attack.
        What you proffer is your personal opinion, which is meaningless.
        Speaking of bad people, you write like an American so what of the wicked Americans who are responsible for the greatest genocide in human history. Entire Native American tribes were butchered into extinction and in the process you exterminated millions and millions. You stole and now occupy their ancestral lands. Finally, the small number that remained were shipped off to desolate concentration camps euphemistically termed, “Indian Reservations”.

      • Bolofia says:

        Not a liar. Not a hypocrite. Also, not an idiot – unlike yourself.
        Also, I didn’t murder 7 million Jews. What’s your score?

  7. cachelake says:

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. That was a different time and different people. They worked hard, had victory gardens, raised chickens and pigs in their back yards in the city. Many lived through the great depression or had parents that did. Todays generation are greedy, wanting to know what’s in it for them, what can you give me. Large gangs roam the streets now, forget when society collapses. Society today would break down so fast your head would spin. Guard you supplies, keep OPSEC top priority or the zombies will come knocking down your door. Small disasters, localized disasters, people will help. But in a grid down nationwide collapse you better have your bullets, beans and bandaids stocked up and have your close knit friends an family around you.

  8. Christian Gains says:

    Joshua, GOOD ARTICLE & very uplifting! But! I think you left a HUGE factor out…”Entitlements & those who UTTERLY depend on them!

    I was born in Chicago, raised, {from age 7 thru 26}, in Georgia; and have lived in at LEAST 8 different States for long enough to KNOW the SOCIAL STRUCTURE, & it’s frailties & fragility. AND! The various riots through (especially of the years of the last 8 yr. Admin.) leaves one with the MOST VIVID of examples of just what SOCIAL COLLAPSE actually will become….AND THOSE examples were NOT full collapse! Altho you wouldn’t have know it, from day one!

    Of course, the extent of the disaster, and it’s OVERALL impact & effects, are EXTREMELY significant.

    I MUST agree 110% with “ILLNI Warrior”, The lack of meaningful communications that technology has produced is astounding, to say the least! AND! YES! They don’t know their neighbors, and really don’t care to…”We the people…”, allowed God & Jesus & the Bible to be removed from our Schools; AND we also have ALLOWED 50,000,000 births to be ceased, (FAR TOO MANY merely for convenience sake!)…Sooooo, what kind of attitude should we expect!?!?

    Take this to HEART! People who will allow PEOPLE to KILL unborns, ESPECIALLY just for their fun & convenience), ARE DANGEROUS…and WILL be WORSE than ever when the SHTF!

    No! This collapse will be TOTALLY Different in MANY WAYS from the past…Including just how animalistic, AND Cannibalistic, humans, [with LOW CHARACTER & VALUES] can become! This is one point in our future that is assured…GREAT VALUES & CHARACTER have been sufficiently removed also, so as to NEARLY destroy decency!!

    I PRAY that it DOES NOT DESTROY the decent!!!!

  9. Suzanne Hetchler says:

    In reading the comments already made, there are a lot of good points. Short-term disasters like Harvey do a lot of destruction and deaths. The survivors expect help coming from the outside. They work together, help one another.

    The grid going down would bring the worst chaos, fear, and anarchy imaginable. Good people do vile things when desperate for food, water, shelter, etc. Soon after the grid going down for any reason (hacked, emp, bombed, etc.) and food will not be on store shelves. Producers and distribution networks won’t function without electricity. Just like when power goes out in a storm and Walmart won’t sell you anything because the computer networked registers won’t function. Consider trying to buy when nothing works nationwide!

    Once the bellies start to grumble, violence is inevitable. You prepared a great food supply? GREAT! What are you going to do to defend it when the mobs and gangs show up at your door to take it?

    Plan security and defense in your prepping. Or all your money spent and hard work done will be taken from you.

    Other things, like an earthquake will bring help from the outside. In a grid goes down scenario, no one outside your local area can function either. Anarchy, every man for himself, to the strongest goes the spoils mentality will ensue. And your neighbor of many years may be your worst nightmare.

    Prepare for the worst, pray for the best, and trust God for the rest.

    God bless the preppers who like Joseph, stored up food in time of plenty to prepare for time of famine.


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