Best of the BA Fest!

16 September 2007

Interview with

John Drury, University of Sussex, & David Steven, Hypnotic Audio

Meera spoke to John Drury from the University of Sussex about his work on the psychology of crowds...

John -   I gathered data from 145 people, most of whom were actually caught up in the explosions. I was interested in whether their behaviour was selfish and competitive, or cooperative, because there's an assumption that people in emergencies tend to panic. Or if they don't panic, that they simply look after family members.

So first of all, I looked at their behaviour, and I found that selfish and competitive behaviour was extremely rare. On the other hand, mutual help was extremely common. My second question, was who were they with? As you know, most of the people on those trains were commuters. Therefore, most of the people helping each other were with strangers. People were helping strangers. My third question then, was to ask well what was the process behind this helping of strangers? They contrasted this with the experience you have everyday on the underground, where people feel atomised, and so it was this sense of unity, arising from the danger itself that brought people together that explains there helping behaviour.

Meera -   What were your overall conclusions from this?

John -   First of all, that the idea of panic is a myth. Secondly, that the authorities should make provisions for peoples willingness to provide help for each other (the public tend to be excluded from emergencies), and thirdly, the authorities, rather than treating people as irrational and overemotional, should try to give more information to the public on what's happening during emergencies.

Meera - You say communication should be improved. Why should communication be improved and how can it be improved?

John -   Well there is evidence, not just from my study but from other experimental studies, that when you give people more information about the nature of the danger, the location of the danger, people exit more effectively. The assumption is, that the more information you give people, the more they panic. Well that's not actually true. So you should have tannoy systems in place, that tell people the location and the nature of the danger so they can upon it.

Meera - Do you think we should all promote actually having contact with each other in normal circumstances?

John -   There is some lesson about everyday life here as well. Because, when you go on the tube, some of my people did draw a contrast between how people avoid each other's eyes, and I think the authorities and those in control of public spaces can do something about this by addressing people increasingly by their collective identity and in that way they can encourage more helping and cooperative and altruistic behaviour that we get in everyday life at the moment.

 - Music -

Meera -   So that, was music played purely by the use of sensors. I'm here with David who's going to explain to me how that's possible. Hello David!

David - Hello, yes I've been working with some children from the Applefield special needs school in York and the idea of the project is that it gives access to children who wouldn't normally have access to keyboards and so on for the reason of their disabilities and allows them to play music on the computer. The computer is a kind of software sampler and they control the playback with sensors. Now, these are things like infra-red distance sensors, the sort of thing that when you go to the supermarket the doors open automatically-there's something there that detects your movement. So we've got distance sensors, sensors you can tilt and move around and also pressure sensors.

Meera - There was something that resembled a cymbal but the children just kept there hand hovering over it, so that was a distance sensor?

David -   Yes that's a distance sensor. It sends out a little infra-red beam and then movement in front of it bounces back, the sensor detects the distance and then there's software inside the computer that translates that into control information for the sample playback. They can control the part of the sound that's playing back and also the pitch of the sound.

Meera -   Well, that was a very impressive result, so I hope the children are happy?

David -   There are some definite future stars among them I think....

Meera -   I've just arrived on Parliament Street and glaring me in the face is a huge, multi-coloured, multi-pathed inflated dome!So, I've just come inside the dome and it's really quite surreal. There's paths going in a quite a few directions and the colours are just really vibrant. All the paths are lined with bright blue and bright red. I'm here with Paul, who's going to explain how they get this effect. Hi Paul,

Paul -   Hello. You said it's very bright in here, in fact it is relatively dark in here compared to outside. The only light in here is from sunlight that comes through the plastic and is filtered into the structure, and red, green and blue are used specifically because they're the primary colours of light. So they're the colour we pick up in our eyes, all the other colours you see by the way are combinations of the three. While its relatively dark in here, you're more or less getting 100% of the red, blue and green from the sun separated from those three and tour eyes are, at the same time, dilated in order to receive more light because you're aware that it's actually fairly dark in here. So you're eyes are adjusted to get as much light as possible and you're still getting, independently, 100% of the three primaries which is what gives it that effect of being very bright and vibrant.

Meera -  I've just managed to bump into Helen. Hello Helen.

Helen -  Hello.

Meera -  This is all part of the BA Festival of science, did you know that was going on?

Helen -  I actually didn't know, no. I just came into town and found all these interesting things going on in town! And it's good for something to be different as well, because normally its fruit and veg to see something to do with science is really interesting.

Meera - Well that's it from me, I hope you've enjoyed listening to the best of the fest!

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