Terminals were evacuated and flights were stopped at Los Angeles International Airport Sunday, marking the third time this month false reports of shots fired have caused panic in a public place.
Researchers say situations like that in Terminals 6,7, and 8 where gunfire was errantly reported are exacerbated by recent upticks in mass violence across the country and the way a crowd collectively reacts in an emergency situation.
Witnesses at LAX describe a chaotic scene, with people dropping bags and fleeing through exit doors. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York descended into similar pandemonium two weeks ago when someone reported shots fired, causing the evacuation of two terminals and the closure of part of a major highway. That incident was later attributed to loud cheers for Usain Bolt’s performance in an Olympic race that some mistook for the sound of a weapon.
The day before, a Raleigh, North Carolina mall was evacuated after several people reported gunfire, but a search found no evidence of a shooter.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti attributed the panic at LAX to miscommunication which caused a chain reaction even though there was never any danger.
"It's almost like a game of telephone, by the time people were hearing things, I think they heard it was an active shooter … that's when chaos can break out," Garcetti told KNX-AM. "It wasn't really the technology, it was just … one person yelling out to another and yelling to another."
Guillaume Dezecache, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod, Ecole Normale Superieure of Paris, has studied how people behave in mass emergency situations. He is currently conducting research on people who were inside the Bataclan Concert Hall during the terrorist attacks in Paris last November and how people perceived the emotions of others in such an intense situation.
“One of the things we heard in our participants is that when you hear something which is weird, such as the shots of a Kalishnakov ... one of the first things you try to do is check with others, or you turn your gaze away to others to try to see a common ground: ‘Are we hearing the same thing, are we listening to the same thing? Because it’s weird,’” Dezecache said.
Forensic audiology expert Dr. Robert Beiter said an increase in gun violence has changed the way people perceive loud sounds.
“If somebody drops a pallet from six feet, if it falls off truck, hits flat and makes a big bang, 15 years ago people may not have viewed that as a gunshot. Today that can very easily be viewed as a gunshot,” Beiter said. “There’s just a heightened sensitivity to gunfire noise. We hear it almost regularly on the news, some kind of mass shooting.”
Dezecache said that the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in both Europe and the U.S. have also made people more afraid in environments like airports where they traditionally did not feel vulnerable.
“The fact that there’s a particular context with the terrorist attacks makes this information very, very salient for people because they know it can happen everywhere. It happened in France in a concert hall, it happened in Turkey in an airport, so it can happen very much everywhere,” Dezecache said. “There’s something as well with being in a group, being together that’s going to make the fearful things more salient.”
But he says that while a crowd situation can be powerful, just because someone you are with is afraid of something, doesn’t mean you will automatically share that fear.
“If I’m walking with you and if you’re afraid of birds, I’m not afraid of birds. There are particular places and settings which are particularly prone to contagion effects,” Dezecache said. “An airport or a concert hall are going to become places where this kind of thing can happen and in this context I think you’re going to be particularly sensitive to cues in the environment, notably the expression of anxiety and fear.”
In studying the way emotions are passed between people in different situations, Dezecache did not find that fear was more contagious than other emotions.