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The Big Question

Thomas Glass, associate professor of epidemiology in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, has since the 1990s studied social responses to disasters.

Q: Does Disaster Bring Out the Worst in People?
A: "The answer has to be no. In fact, disasters tend to bring out the best in us. From an evolutionary point of view, it almost has to be this way. As recent as our grandparents' generation and going back 150,000 years to the beginning of human kind, disasters were a dime a dozen. Human beings survived ice ages, famine, attacks from rival groups, predation from animals, infection — and we didn't do it because we were strong or fast. We survived as a species because in the state of extreme calamity, we tend to be very resourceful and cooperative. If it were the case that disaster brought out the worst in us, I don't think we would be here.

"That doesn't mean that greed and selfishness and violence can't occur. In disaster research we make a distinction between two kinds of crises: consensus and dissensus. In a consensus crisis, everybody has a feeling of having a common destiny, being in the same boat. This was true in London during the Blitz. It was true during the blackouts on the East Coast several years ago.

"A dissensus crisis is when there's a profound sense of injustice — that some group has been mistreated, that the system has failed. We saw this in the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict — there was a sense that the courts had failed the population. After Hurricane Katrina, violence erupted in places where large numbers of people who were poor and largely African-American were brought together, and then a widespread perception took hold that somehow this group had been unfairly treated by a city, a state, a country that had abandoned them. So this group began looting. It's very hard to know whether they looted for personal gain, or for the relief that was not coming from the places it was expected to come from.

"This is a very important lesson for public health. That sense of breach of fairness is a major trigger for the kind of collective response that we'd all like to prevent. If we ever had a mass outbreak of flu, would flu vaccine be distributed fairly? Or would senators and congressmen get the vaccine, as happened with anthrax, while ordinary citizens, poor people, people on the margins of society don't? If we want cooperative and pro-social behaviors in disasters, then a major working principle has to be the importance of trust and fairness. To me, that's the lesson of Katrina."

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