Íse Murphy

Can the word ‘stampede’ undermine crowd safety?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines Stampede as:

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Stampede as:

Merriam-Webster defines Stampede as:

And finally, the Collins Dictionary definition is:

When I think of 'stampede', I think of The Lion King, and the scene (I can no longer watch) where Simba loses Mufasa. I think of Fawlty Towers, where Basil is trying to understand Mrs. Richard's heightened expectations of a view, citing "herds of wildebeests sweeping majestically across the plain". Finally, I recall the asthmatic rhino at the back of the mass chaos through the town centre in Jumanji.

Is this what humans do?

Stampedes and Crowds

The word 'stampede'  is often used to describe various forms of crowd incidents including crushing, crowd collapse, crowd turbulence, or evacuation due to fire, explosion, attack or infrastructure failure. While its definition might be closely applicable to scenarios of emergency evacuation, its narrative does not match scenarios such as;

Yet 'stampede' is often used to describe most crowd incidents including the ones described above. What I find most concerning however, is what 'stampede'  brings to mind. Using this word to describe crowd incidents influences how we perceive the behaviour of the crowd, and particularly what action we take next.


In an article in the New York Times on the rise of extremism, the writer, Charles M. Blow, notes that using the word 'mule' to describe a person who carries illegal drugs across borders, dehumanises them:

Once you animalize people, you have, by definition, dehumanized them, and that person is no longer worthy of being treated humanely.

If 'mule' dehumanises a person, can 'stampede' dehumanise a crowd?

The process of dehuminisation allows us to treat another human being with disdain without feeling guilty about it. It removes their humanness, instead likening them to either animals (lacking in cognitive capacity and awareness) or inanimate objects (lacking in emotion and vitality) (Haslam, 2006). This phenomenon allow us to justify actions we would never take if we felt compassion. It is what allows people to commit acts of genocide, murder, war and permit pain and suffering of a person or people.

A most recent public example is Prince Harry referring to people he killed, whilst serving in the military, as "chess pieces", attributing them to inanimate objects, devoid of emotion or love. We have all most likely been subject or witness to other examples including likening immigrants to infectious diseases, attendees making animal noises at players during a football match, or describing the behaviour of crowds trying to break into an event as "animalistic".

Although dehumanisation may result in extreme action, psychologists have discovered a more subtle and common form known as Infrahumanisation; whereby in-group members perceive out-group members as less than human even in the absence of antagonism, denying humanness in subtle ways (Haslan and Loughlan, 2013). Where learning about dehumanisation and infrahumanisation becomes pertinent to our own critical awareness is where Harris and Fiske (2006) argue that dehumanisation occurs when the neural network in our brains underpinning social cognition fails to activate upon identification of a human target i.e. our brain has immediately passed judgment upon a person it sees before we even become conscious of it. We are unconciously making an assumption about the crowd, enforced by a dehumanising concept such as 'stampede'.

A fire starts from a small flame, and I believe by continuing to use 'stampede' to describe crowds in a disaster can fan the flames of an unconscious idea about how crowds should be treated during crises.

Dehumanising crowds

Metaphors help us understand new concepts that we otherwise would struggle to comprehend. For example, the metaphor of folders on a computer desktop to replace physical folders on a physical desktop; or the floppy disk icon as a metaphor for saving a document. Using stampede as a metaphor for crowds, paints a certain picture in our minds of their likely behaviour, and more importantly, how we then judge and take action.

By using stampede to describe a crowd of human beings, I believe we are removing the human element of cognitive capacity, critical awareness, emotion, love, etc. and replacing with attributes associated with either animals or inanimate objects; wild, uncontrollable, dangerous, mindless, etc. All of a sudden these people are dangerous? All of a sudden they are a threat? How would that make us respond, if we came across someone as a threat versus an ally? How would we react? How are we training our brains to respond?

The impact of dehumanisation can be seen in society such as men who associate women with animals or objects have a higher tendency for sexual aggression (Rudman and Mescher, 2012) or in genocide, racism, discrimination of refugees and people from lower social class backgrounds.

In my article on why crowds crush, I mention that the study of crowds first came about in an attempt to subvert and control people, through the concept that they were wild and dangerous, like animals. We have come a long way since then in the realisation that crowds are not how we originally perceived, that they are not mindless and dangerous, and that our role as safety professionals is to keep them safe.

Granted, it is interesting to conceive when those we are tasked with keeping safe deviate from normal behaviour and attack us and our team - a phenomenon that appears to be intensifying since the pandemic (and something worth further investigation). However, even in situations where deviance is a legitimate threat to event safety, those 'crowds' appear to be, once again, not mindless and wild, but organised and focused on the goal of entering the event without a ticket, for example. If deviant behaviour becomes dominant behaviour it is assumed to be accepted as the norm (Vider, 2004).

Debunking the definition

As mentioned at the beginning, one of the definitions of 'stampede' included 'sudden panicked rush' or 'sudden rapid movement', and the rest included references to 'wild' and 'uncontrolled'. However if we look at news stories about 'crowd stampedes', we often do not see much evidence of panic, uncontrolled, wild rushing or sudden movement. In the most recent incident at the Gulf Cup in Iraq, stated as a stampede by reports, it appears in those reports people intentionally gathered outside of the stadium, which does not align with 'wild', 'uncontrolled', 'sudden panicked rush' or 'sudden rapid movement', and seems many others attempted to gain access into the stadium through gates or climbing walls, which, once again does not align with these definitions. Instead, the actions appear to result from intentional decisions made in an attempt to reach a destination.

A scenario that more closely aligns with a sudden rapid movement or reaction of a mass of people in response to a particular circumstance or stimulus could be in emergency evacuations, where crowds flee an area where a threat has suddenly risen; such as a fire, attack or explosion. Firstly, if a threat such as this arises, our sympathetic nervous system will activate, enabling our bodies to fight or flight in order to stay alive_._ In the UK, the public are urged to "Run, Hide, Tell" in the event of a terrorist attack. Although in these scenarios it may be common for people to run 'in reaction to a particular circumstance or stimulus', but are they also behaving 'wild ' and 'uncontrolled' like animals or inanimate objects? Researchers have uncovered that the majority of the crowd in emergencies don't behave 'wild' and 'uncontrolled' but instead adopt a role now known as "Zero Responders"; whereby individuals seek to assist and tend to fellow victims in the situation they have found themselves in (Cole et al, 2011; Drury et al, 2013; Drury et al, 2019). This behaviour, even in emergency evacuations where people are reacting to a particular circumstance or stimulus, informs us that the crowd are far more rational and cognitively engaged than we may previously have assumed and not 'wild' or 'uncontrolled' as the definition of 'stampede' suggests.

Updating the narrative

I believe that using the word "stampede" is a continuation of the outdated beliefs of crowds and crowd behaviour from the 19th century. It continues to fan the flame of dehuminsation, allowing us to perceive crowds as threats rather than human beings we need to do our best in keeping safe. It is a word that does not appear to align with what is truly happening during these emergencies and so I suggest it is released from the media's repertoire of adjectives. Instead, "emergency evacuation", "incident" or "disaster" could be more applicable to incidents where crowds react to a threat, and immediately remove any suggestion of blame as to the cause.

Whether or not we are dealing with crowd safety issues due to a threat such as weather, fire, attack or deviant behaviour, or weakness in our plans in areas of design, information and management; we still need to treat our crowds, not as animals or inanimate objects, but as as human beings.


If this article was helpful and you wish to learn more about improving ingress, egress or zone ex at your event or venue, please send me an email.


Cole, J., Walters, M. and Lynch, M. (2011) “Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd’s role in emergency response.” Contemporary Social Science, 6(3) pp. 361–375.

Drury, J., Novelli, D. and Stott, C. (2013) “Representing crowd behaviour in emergency planning guidance: ‘mass panic’ or collective resilience?” Resilience, 1(1) pp. 18–37.

Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Guven, S. T. and Amlôt, R. (2019) “Facilitating Collective Psychosocial Resilience in the Public in Emergencies: Twelve Recommendations Based on the Social Identity Approach.” Frontiers in Public Health, 7, June, pp. 2259–21.

Haslam N. 2006. Dehumanization: an integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Rev.10:252–64

Haslam, N. and Loughnan, S. (2013) ‘Dehumanization and Infrahumanization.’ Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1) pp. 399–423.

Harris L, Fiske S. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science. 17:847–53

Rudman, L. A. and Mescher, K. (2011) ‘Of Animals and Objects.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6) pp. 734–746.

VIDER, S. (2004) “Rethinking Crowd Violence: Self-Categorization Theory and the Woodstock 1999 Riot.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 34(2) pp. 141–166.

#crowd safety #psychology