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Study Reveals Public Coordination During London Knife Attack

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A study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology sheds new light on public behaviour during emergencies, specifically focusing on a marauding knife attack on the London Underground. The research challenges classical assumptions of crowd behaviour, demonstrating that individuals often exhibit coordinated and purposeful actions, contrary to the expectation of chaos and self-interest. Terry Au-Yeung and colleagues’ study, which examined CCTV footage from the 2015 Leytonstone Station attack, revealed a wide range of public responses that collectively helped to manage the threat.

The knife attack occurred on 5th December 2015, at Leytonstone Station, just days after the UK Parliament voted to join airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. The attacker, later identified as a 29-year-old Somali man, was suffering from a mental health episode at the time. The incident was initially treated as a terrorist attack by the Metropolitan Police. The assailant attempted to murder a 59-year-old man using a blunt knife, causing panic and rapid egress among passengers. Despite the fear and confusion, the study found that many individuals engaged in actions that supported collective safety and mitigated the attack’s impact.

The research team utilised 2.5 hours of soundless CCTV footage from 27 cameras positioned throughout Leytonstone Station. Social media posts, news articles, radio communications, and incident logs all served as supplements to this footage. The researchers applied a chronological and thematic analytic approach to map and categorise the behaviours of individuals present during the attack. This innovative methodology allowed for a detailed examination of the sequence of events and the variety of actions taken by the public.

Contrary to classical models that predict uniform and self-interested behaviour during emergencies, the study highlighted significant behavioural diversity among the passengers. The researchers identified eight categories of actions that individuals engaged in during the attack, which were functional for collective safety. These categories included defending, communicating, providing first aid, recruiting help, marshalling movement, gathering evidence, and negotiating with the attacker. Each action played a role in either mitigating the threat, aiding victims, or preventing further harm ​​.

For instance, some individuals physically confronted the attacker, while others provided first aid to the injured. Communicating information about the threat and marshalling others to safety were also common responses. These actions were not isolated; often, individuals engaged in multiple behaviours, demonstrating a dynamic and adaptive response to the evolving situation.

Classical theories of crowd behaviour, such as those proposed by Gustave Le Bon, suggest that individuals in crowds lose their sense of identity and behave irrationally. These theories have been used to explain phenomena like mass panic and the bystander effect, where individuals are presumed to be passive or apathetic in emergencies. However, the findings from the Leytonstone Station attack challenge these assumptions. Instead of chaos and self-interest, the study observed coordinated and socially oriented actions among the public. This behaviour aligns more closely with the social identity model of collective resilience, which posits that shared identity in a crisis fosters solidarity and cooperative behaviour.

The study also touches on the implications of these findings for emergency planning and public policy. Traditional emergency guidance, such as the “Run, Hide, Tell” advice for terror attacks, may not fully harness the potential for collective resilience observed in real-life incidents. Recognising and supporting the capacity for spontaneous, coordinated public response could enhance overall emergency preparedness and response strategies.

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