Panic, irrationality, herding: Three ambiguous terms in crowd dynamics research

Milad Haghani, Emiliano Cristiani, Nikolai Bode, Maik Boltes, Alessandro Corbetta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

62 Citations (Scopus)
235 Downloads (Pure)


The three terms “panic”, “irrationality” and “herding” are ubiquitous in the crowd dynamics literature and have a strong influence on both modelling and management practices. The terms are also commonly shared between the scientific and non-scientific domains. The pervasiveness of the use of these terms is to the point where their underlying assumptions have often been treated as common knowledge by both experts and lay persons. Yet, at the same time, the literature on crowd dynamics presents ample debate, contradiction and inconsistency on these topics.

This review is the first to systematically revisit these three terms in a unified study to highlight the scope of this debate. We extracted from peer-reviewed journal articles direct quotes that offer a definition, conceptualisation or supporting/contradicting evidence on these terms and/or their underlying theories. To further examine the suitability of the term herding, a secondary and more detailed analysis is also conducted on studies that have specifically investigated this phenomenon in empirical settings.

The review shows that (i) there is no consensus on the definition for the terms panic and irrationality; and that (ii) the literature is highly divided along discipline lines on how accurate these theories/terminologies are for describing human escape behaviour. The review reveals a complete division and disconnection between studies published by social scientists and those from the physical science domain; also, between studies whose main focus is on numerical simulation versus those with empirical focus. (iii) Despite the ambiguity of the definitions and the missing consensus in the literature, these terms are still increasingly and persistently mentioned in crowd evacuation studies. (iv) Different to panic and irrationality, there is relative consistency in definitions of the term herding, with the term usually being associated with ‘(blind) imitation’. However, based on the findings of empirical studies, we argue why, despite the relative consistency in meaning, (v) the term herding itself lacks adequate nuance and accuracy for describing the role of ‘social influence’ in escape behaviour. Our conclusions also emphasise the importance of distinguishing between the social influence on various aspects of evacuation behaviour and avoiding generalisation across various behavioural layers.

We argue that the use of these three terms in the scientific literature does not contribute constructively to extending the knowledge or to improving the modelling capabilities in the field of crowd dynamics. This is largely due to the ambiguity of these terms, the overly simplistic nature of their assumptions, or the fact that the theories they represent are not readily verifiable.

We suggest that it would be beneficial for advancing this research field that the phenomena related to these three terms are clearly defined by more tangible and quantifiable terms and be formulated as verifiable hypotheses, so they can be operationalised for empirical testing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number9267643
Number of pages58
JournalJournal of Advanced Transportation
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2019


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