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TRENDING SCIENCE: Strength in numbers? Not during crises, study finds

New research reveals why large groups of people respond ineffectively in times of crisis.

© Angelina Bambina, Shutterstock

US President Donald Trump said in a recent press conference that the United States will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization, traditionally seen as the natural arbiter of the global order when dealing with health emergencies. Countries are at odds over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. When needed most, international bodies, institutions, organisations and initiatives lack global collaboration, unable to reach a consensus because of a sharp conflict of views. Why is it that collective dangers like infectious diseases, economic crises, and natural and human-caused disasters pose a serious challenge to human coordination and communication? A paper published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences’ suggests human connection isn’t always a good thing, and that the larger a social group grows, people may in fact respond slower to an emerging crisis. American researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Yale universities found that larger groups of people react slower to a crisis than smaller groups because false information can interfere with urgency. The research team gathered 2 480 volunteers and separated these individuals into 108 teams of various sizes. Their objective was to decide when they needed to evacuate during a simulated disaster. Only one person or so-called expert in each group knew the magnitude of the scenario and how to effectively deal with it. The others had to work out what was happening by giving opinions and advice to one another.

The cost of inaction

The researchers analysed all the groups’ behaviours and found that the larger groups took longer to respond to the crisis. In some cases, they responded in ways that weren’t beneficial or suitable in coping with the situation. This was because of the inclination of some people in the groups to disregard or discredit valuable information from the expert. In certain circumstances, they started rumours that usually weren’t based on reality. When this information was communicated, it resulted in uncertainty by others in the group. Sometimes people didn’t do anything because they couldn’t agree on what to do. “In a sense, interpersonal communications may decrease actual security in return for collective reassurance,” the authors wrote. “Although the results of laboratory experiments do not translate directly into the real world, the evidence presented here suggests that formal details of interpersonal communications might place humans at systematic risk when facing a collective danger.”

United we stand?

The authors explained that even though social networks do extremely well at offering social support, they “can function poorly as pathways for inconvenient truths that people would rather ignore.” The researchers noted: “Humans have an evolved psychology when it comes to responding to collective threats to feel anxiety and fear in isolation, but modern communication technology may provide dangerous and false reassurance.” One shining example is fake news. The global pandemic and climate change are real-life experiments where the consequences of inaction are very high. Both will prove to be watershed events in how we act, and whether and how other people communicate and act.


COVID-19, coronavirus, crisis, pandemic, group