Bad behaviour in disasters

Some disasters bring out the very worst in human behaviour, as described in the frightening and illuminating book No Mercy.

 No Mercy

What do people do in a disaster? Panic? Actually, collective behaviour in many disasters is surprisingly rational.

During the Cold War, US planners prepared for the ultimate disaster, a nuclear attack, and looked to other sorts of disasters to find out what might happen. They found a relatively comforting picture: most people protected themselves and those closest to them, and many were altruistic, helping anyone they could. Only a relatively few descended into antisocial behaviours such as looting and shooting.

More recently, Amanda Ripley in her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why described people’s responses to crisis situations, for example being in an aircraft when it crashes. Only a few panic and only a few quickly take the most sensible action, leaving the aircraft. Most are simply stunned and do nothing – which can be deadly if the plane explodes.

However, there is another potential response to disaster, evoked in some situations: extreme selfishness, including willingness to kill.

No Mercy

Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff in their book No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013) reveal the depths of human behaviour. The authors collected numerous stories from historical accounts of shipwrecks, aeroplane crashes and sieges. The circumstances in their chosen cases were particularly dire. A relatively small number of individuals, from a handful to several hundred, were stranded in circumstances in which their lives were at risk. Rescue was not imminent, and drowning or starvation was a prospect. The result, in some cases, was cruelty and selfishness so extreme as to make readers question their understandings of human nature.

William Brown
William Brown

On the night of 19 April 1841, the ship William Brown struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank. The crew took most of the places in the two boats available, leaving many passengers on the ship to drown. Of the two craft, the longboat was more crowded, and it leaked. By the second night, crew on the boat started to select passengers to be thrown overboard to their death, even as the wind died down and there was no risk of sinking. And so they continued, throwing one passenger after another, both men and women, overboard into the icy water, until 16 were dead. Half an hour later, a passing vessel rescued the remaining survivors on the longboat.

Learmonth and Tabakoff give lots of detail about this case, and much of it is even more horrifying than this summary. Only one of the killers was charged with a crime; he spent six months in prison.

Other stories of disaster in No Mercy describe equally appalling human behaviour, including cannibalism. They involve different centuries and nationalities, with seagoing nations heavily represented.

It is easy to say, “I would never do anything like this.” Perhaps not, but it’s hard to know if you’ve never been in the same circumstances. Privation and starvation, and the threat of imminent death, can change many people’s behaviour.

An experiment and a novel

Throughout No Mercy, Learmonth and Tabakoff weave information from two books, each published in 1954. The first was titled The Robbers Cave Experiment, and reported a study of group dynamics.


Two groups of 11-year-old boys were observed in a camp setting in the US state of Oklahoma, where they were left pretty much to their own devices for a week, while camp staff unobtrusively provided facilities and services, and watched. Unbeknownst to the boys, the staff were researchers.

Then each group of boys was allowed to become aware of the other group, in a situation of mild rivalry. What happened next was disturbing. Each group treated the other group as an enemy, and verbal abuse escalated into hostile raids. Just as important as the inter-group rivalry was the transformation of internal dynamics, with leaders emerging who castigated softness. The researchers had to call off the experiment before it became physically dangerous.


The Robbers Cave experiment is famous in the annals of the psychology of groups. It shows the tendency for members of randomly composed groups to bond quickly and to treat outsiders as enemies, even when the others are basically just like them. The experiment took place using well-adjusted middle-class boys in an industrialised country without any privation. It shows the dangerous potential for group loyalty to descend into violence.

The other book published in 1954 was Lord of the Flies, a famous novel by William Golding. The fictional story starts with the contrivance of a group of young British boys being stranded on an island alone after an aeroplane crash in which all the adults are killed. Rivalries and superstitions develop, and scapegoats are picked out for sacrifice, culminating in murder.

Lord of the flies

Golding’s story was fictional, but it was inspired by his personal experiences. He had been a schoolteacher for a decade and observed his pupils closely, including in casual experiments on field trips in which he manipulated circumstances in ways not unlike the Robbers Cave experimenters. Though Golding portrayed his insights fictionally, they eerily mirrored what was happening across the world in Oklahoma.

Learmonth and Tabakoff use these two books as templates for understanding what happened in the cases they describe. Of the two books, Lord of the Flies is far better known, and many people were disturbed to imagine that such a scenario might be possible in reality. No Mercy is testimony that Golding was too optimistic: in certain extreme circumstances, some humans can descend into savagery much more quickly than Golding’s fictional portrayal, in a matter of days rather than months.


No Mercy is not all bad news. The authors also describe some cases in which a small number of disaster survivors, in dire circumstances, worked together in a humane and supportive fashion, resulting in better prospects for survival and rescue. Some cases featured valiant and altruistic behaviour. What factors make a difference?

Learmonth and Tabakoff say leadership is crucial. If formal leaders are selfish, cruel and unfair, prospects are grimmer: a new informal leadership may emerge, usually mimicking the original ones. But when formal leaders are supportive and fair, the odds are better for good behaviour. For example, some leaders ensure that everyone – even those likely to die soon – received an equal allocation of scarce food supplies, thereby helping bond the survivors in a common commitment to the group.

No Mercy can be gruelling at times, but it has important messages. One of them is that humans can be tribal in a highly dangerous way, as shown by the Robbers Cave experiment, even when there is no survival advantage to the group. There are parallels in quite a few contemporary social problems, including mobbing (collective bullying), partisan party politics and genocide.

At the conclusion of No Mercy, Learmonth and Tabakoff return to a question they posed at the beginning of their book:

As a template for social decay, how accurate is the Lord of the Flies principle?

            The answer is inescapable – exceptionally accurate. William Golding’s work followed with almost pinpoint precision all of the main aspects of the implosion of a failed group:

– neglect of the weak and sick;

– a rapid descent into bickering over resources and labour;

– the corrosive, emotional effect of hunger, paranoia and fear;

– the collapse of leadership;

– fragmentation into hostile factions;

– the emergence of personal hatred;

– an absolute loss of compassion and altruism;

– casual acceptance of death;

– violent fights that escalate into murder and, finally, the emergence of killing for entertainment. (pp. 280-281)

Learmonth and Tabakoff conclude the main text with a list of ways to avoid the Lord of the Flies principle. I will conclude with them here. But before reading them, I invite you to pick a political, economic, social or religious framework – for example feminism, neoliberalism, socialism or Buddhism – and see how it would serve survival in a disaster scenario, according to the following 13 recommendations. This can be a revealing exercise.


  1. As soon as disaster strikes, get rid of any alcohol.
  2. Acknowledge the situation has changed: the group should be free to choose a new leader – someone they can trust to make decisions for the good of the group.
  3. As soon as possible, establish order and a routine.
  4. Never allow the weak to die in order to save the strong – survivor maths is a fatal game.
  5. Share resources and workloads equally among the survivors, regardless of rank.
  6. Use a rotating work schedule.
  7. Communicate. Silence is your enemy.
  8. Stay busy, even if it seems pointless.
  9. The leader must be accountable and replaceable.
  10. Fragmentation is almost inevitable, but the leader must control factional discord.
  11. Have a plan. If it fails, make a new plan.
  12. If one faction begins to dominate and victimise the rest, it is imperative the remainder organise and defend themselves. Once murders commence, they tend to escalate.
  13. Fight the mindset of individual self-preservation – we are communal creatures and we survive best in groups. (p. 287)

Brian Martin

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments on a draft.

Whistleblowing and loyalty

Whistleblowers can gain insights from Jonathan Haidt’s studies of the foundations for morality.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, for example to expose corruption, abuse or dangers to the public. Surely this should be seen as a valuable service. Yet whistleblowers are frequently treated as traitors, as guilty of something worse than the abuses and crimes they reveal.


National security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have been called traitors. Whistleblowers who are teachers, police officers, public servants or corporate executives may be called traitors, dobbers, snitches or other epithets.

Just as important as words are the reprisals that whistleblowers experience, including ostracism, petty harassment, demotions, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. To be targeted with such hostile actions signifies condemnation, even contempt. Where does this vitriol and hostility come from?

Also important is the role of bystanders, in particular the co-workers who might personally support the whistleblower but are unwilling to take a stand. Many of them are afraid they will become targets themselves; others always support management, sometimes in the hope of rewards. It is reasonable to ask, where does the incredible power of the organisation come from?

The Righteous Mind

Insights can be gained from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist, set out to discover the biological bases of human morality. But first it is useful to explain Haidt’s picture of the mind.


Imagine that your mind has two main components. The first is a rational, calculating operator that can examine courses of action and logically consider principles of behaviour. This is how most people think of themselves. Haidt calls this component the “rider.”

The second part of the mind is an intuitive operator that makes judgements on the basis of gut instinct, without consideration for facts or logic. This part is filled with passions and commitments, which the rider might consider biased and impulsive. Haidt calls this second part of the mind the “elephant.” The elephant makes day-to-day life possible; its quick responses are often sensible — but not always.

Haidt uses the metaphors of the rider and the elephant to highlight a key insight from studies of the mind: for many purposes, rational evaluation is unable to restrain instinctive responses. The elephant is too large and powerful to be controlled by the rider.

Haidt, through careful assessment of psychological research, concludes that in most cases the primary role of the rider is to figure out ways to justify what the elephant does. In other words, people reach their views about the world on the basis of gut instinct, and then their rational minds figure out reasons to justify these views.

Elephant and Rider

This is not a pretty picture, especially for those who believe in the primacy of rationality, or believe that they personally follow reason rather than emotion.

The next step in Haidt’s analysis is discovering the foundations of morality. Through a variety of means, he arrived at six main foundations that shape people’s senses of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt used various tests to work out which of these values influence judgements in US people. He found that “liberals” (who might be called progressives in Australia) rely especially on care, liberty and fairness, whereas conservatives rely more equally on all of the foundations. This helps explain some of the political differences in the US.

Most of these foundations are relevant to whistleblowers. One key foundation, care, means looking after those in need, for example children and people suffering misfortune. When whistleblowers speak out about abuse of children or shortcomings in health services, they are implicitly appealing to the care foundation for morality. Another foundation, fairness, is relevant for those who speak out about corruption, including bribery, theft and nepotism. These are all violations of fairness.

So far so good. But whistleblowers come up against some of the other foundations. They are seen to be disloyal (to their employers), undermining authority (of their bosses) and sometimes transgressing on things considered sacred (such as when revealing confidential information). Haidt’s framework suggests that whistleblowers can gain support from some foundations of morality but are up against instinctive responses based on others.

At this point it is worth remembering the rider-elephant metaphor. Few people sit around scrutinising the bases of their own morality. Rather, their ideas of right and wrong are intuitive: they react with their gut and then search for rational justifications for their feelings. So if someone’s morality is strongly shaped by respect for authority, they may react emotionally against a co-worker who breaks ranks and then find reasons for their antagonism.

Sometimes there are multiple sources of authority. For example, a person can accept the authority of church leaders or seek a higher authority in the teachings of spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. However, the rider-elephant factor enters in here: because most teachings can be interpreted in various ways, the rider can find ways of justifying the elephant’s actions. For example, even when religious texts oppose killing, most religious leaders allow participation in war, using various rationalisations.

However, it seems too simple to say that whistleblowers put a priority on care, fairness and liberty (moral priorities for liberals) whereas bosses put a priority on loyalty and authority (which influence conservatives more than liberals). Whistleblowers vary greatly in their beliefs; many are the epitome of the loyal employee. Furthermore, what about all the bystanders, who by their inaction support bosses and let whistleblowers cop it? They are bound to include people driven by a variety of moral precepts.


Various researchers have tried to figure out what, psychologically, makes whistleblowers different from others. Employers would love to know, so they could avoid hiring potential whistleblowers or, having hired one, keep them away from sensitive information. Given the lack of any reliable psychological tests to detect potential whistleblowers, it is safe to assume that psychology is not the key to understanding whistleblowing. This is especially the case for inadvertent whistleblowers, the workers who report a problem, are totally surprised when they experience reprisals, and afterwards say “I was just doing my job.” There are psychological factors involved in this, for example honesty and conscientiousness, but no obvious connection to the foundations of morality traced by Haidt. Or is there?

Care versus loyalty?

Sexual abuse is a violation of the morality of care: those who are vulnerable need to be protected. Speaking out about the abuse, on the other hand, challenges authority and loyalty.

Consider, for example, sexual abuse by clergy. The disturbing reality is that many people in churches knew about it but took little or no action. This can be interpreted as loyalty and authority taking precedence over care. On the other hand, the response of many members of the public, when they learned about the abuse, was completely different: many were horrified and disgusted. As outsiders, their conceptions of loyalty were potentially quite different. They may have had no particular connection to the church, or perhaps had their own loyalty, for example to their children.

But what about authority? Those who are not directly subject to a particular authority may not think deference to it is so important. This observation is compatible with the advice that whistleblowers can gain greatest support from other whistleblowers and from members of the public, for example through media stories.

So morality based on authority seems, at least when it applies to whistleblowers, to be quite specific: deference to authority takes precedence mainly when people are directly subject to the authority, as in the case of bosses or church leaders. This deference can also be explained a different way: people are afraid of the consequences of bucking authority. They might lose their job or, just as worrying, be subject to reprisals such as reprimands, harassment and ostracism. It might seem that fear is a fundamental factor in this dimension of morality.

Loyalty to what?

For me, this raises another question. Why should the two factors of loyalty and authority be tied to the organisation where a person works? In terms of evolution, humans lived in groups whose very survival often depended on banding together. Dissent was potentially dangerous, so it could have been advantageous to attack or expel those who challenged the group’s leaders or threatened its cohesion.

However, many groups today are a far cry from the groups in human prehistory, which were often quite small and probably never much more than a few hundred people in size. Working for a government or corporation with thousands of employees is not the same, neither in scale nor in the danger to the organisation of a bit of dissent.

This suggests to me that although loyalty is a key factor in morality, how loyalty is assigned remains open. Inside a school, for example, a pupil might be loyal to a peer group, a sporting team, a teacher or the school as a whole. In a corporation, a worker might be loyal to a work team, a union, professional peers in the field, a particular boss or the company as a whole. The possibility that loyalty is not automatic suggests that it is worth looking at the methods by which organisations foster it.

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

It’s worth considering each of Haidt’s six foundations for morality and asking, what can be done, by whistleblowers and their supporters, to change gut reactions to whistleblowing so it is more valued? The foundations of care, fairness and liberty are ones that should create favourable attitudes towards whistleblowers. The message is to continually emphasise care for others when speaking out about hazards to the public, emphasise fairness when speaking out about corruption, and emphasise liberty — resistance to domination — when speaking out about threats from government or corporate power.

Those three foundations are the easy ones for whistleblowers, namely ones where they have a natural advantage. The other three foundations are more challenging: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Loyalty to the employer is commonly expected. Whistleblowers violate this sense of loyalty: they are seen as traitors. Are there other ways to assign loyalty to which whistleblowers could appeal? One possibility is loyalty to the mission of the organisation, not to the organisation itself. Of course organisational leaders say they are pursuing the mission, so distinguishing between the mission and the organisation is hard to sell.


Another possibility of an alternative loyalty is to other workers, especially when they are supportive of each other, as in work teams or unions. Instead of speaking out as an individual, a worker concerned about abuses could instead build networks and alliances first, gaining support in order to promote collective action. This is not easy, but does have a prospect of fostering a different assignment of loyalties.

Then there is authority, a moral foundation that whistleblowers almost inevitably challenge. Questioning the boss’s authority is difficult, whether by direct confrontation or by reporting problems to the boss’s boss, higher officials or watchdog bodies. Is there any different line of authority that can be an alternative source of legitimacy? One possibility is the authority of laws. If bosses are violating the law, they are violating legal authority. The trouble is that by the time legal sanctions are applied — if they ever are — it is too late for the whistleblower. After all, corrupt operators do not declare they are breaking the law. Indeed, they commonly allege that whistleblowers are criminals, by violating terms of employment, confidentiality agreements and the like.

One of the advantages of whistleblower laws is that they give legitimacy to whistleblowers. Even though the laws may give little protection in practice and, even worse, give a false sense of security, their very existence may help undermine the assumption that authority is always right.


Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation of special significance to many political conservatives. If corruption is stigmatised, then whistleblowers can draw on this moral foundation. This is suggested by the expressions “clean hands” and “dirty hands,” referring to honest and dishonest individuals. Whistleblowers can assist their cause by avoiding any activity that can be easily stigmatised as dishonest or unsavoury. By the same token, employers regularly manipulate the sanctity foundation by trying to stigmatise the whistleblower, by spreading rumours (sexual misbehaviour is a favourite allegation) and by treating the whistleblower as tainted, not to be trusted or even spoken to. Ostracism — cutting off personal relationships — is in essence to treat a person as dangerous and even contagious.

When whistleblowers join together with others, and obtain support from bystanders, it is far more difficult to stigmatise them. There is protection in numbers.

Considering the various foundations of morality thus provides some direction for whistleblowers and their supporters.

  • When appropriate, emphasise violations of care, fairness, and liberty.
  • Search for alternative bases for loyalty and authority.
  • Try to assign stigma to wrongdoers.
  • Be prepared for the tactics used to turn these moral foundations against whistleblowers.

Brian Martin

More information

I haven’t tried to provide sources for many of the generalisations I’ve made about whistleblowers. For more information see my book Whistleblowing and my site on suppression of dissent.

PS I’ve applied moral foundations ideas to several other topics:


Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Steven Howard, Nicola Marks and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback on drafts.

I am vice president of Whistleblowers Australia but my views here do not necessarily represent those of others in the organisation.

Comments from Kim Sawyer

[Kim was a whistleblower at two Australian universities, and has been active on whistleblowing issues for many years.]

Excellent analysis – corresponds to the thoughts I’ve had over a long period of time. Haidt’s prescription of the rider-elephant dichotomy and the six foundations of morality are insightful. Your application of those foundations to whistleblowing is spot on. Two general comments, and then some specific comments from my experience.

First, whistleblowing acts to elevate the conflict between the foundations. It brings morality into focus for everyone; the whistleblower, the respondent, the bystanders. The foundations are like latent characteristics, and whistleblowing becomes the realization of those characteristics so that an individual has to now make a choice. It’s like going to the ballot box, you have to now choose between fairness and loyalty to the institution.

Secondly, one aspect which could be highlighted more is risk. Everyone, whistleblower, respondent and bystander, assesses their risks. Risk minimization takes over – that is, self-interest. The bystander may see the same unfairness as the whistleblower, but they also see the risk to themselves. You could say that these six foundations are a portfolio, and the whistleblower and bystander assign different weights to different foundations. My sense is that the bystander will always converge to the less risky portfolio which is loyalty to authority.

Some specific comments from my own experience

  1. For me, fairness was always the important factor. In both whistleblowing cases, I chose fairness over loyalty to an unfair authority. And it correlates with my political leanings which are progressive. Of course, there was also a sense of professional responsibility, that a professor should act in the long-term interests of the institution and of higher education in general. Obviously, I took my professional responsibilities too seriously.
  2. The two cases I was involved with highlighted the singularity of whistleblowing, but from vastly different starting points. In both cases though, the institution tried to replace the loyalty of colleagues to me by loyalty to the institution. This strategy emphasises the whistleblower and not the whistleblowing; the weaknesses of the whistleblower and not the foundational issues were highlighted.
  3. Another issue is the conflicting loyalties within the whistleblower. I had loyalty to both universities, but the loyalty was principally to the long-term, not to the short-term management. Whistleblowing involves a lot of internal conflict for a whistleblower between fairness and loyalty to authority. Fairness won out for me.