Sociologist Charles Fritz in the 1950 and 1960s did studies on how communities respond to calamity. He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves. This same response took place from people in southeast Texas and Florida during hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.
Fritz’s theory is that modern society had gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating. Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat, Fritz found, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that, Fritz felt, is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.
The following are direct quotes from the book Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, May 2016, except for statements in italic added. Page numbers added for reference.
The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that, for a while at least, everyone is equal. In 1915 an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy, in less than a minute. The worst hit areas had a mortality rate of 96%, The rich were killed along with the poor, virtually everyone who survived was immediately thrust into the most basic struggle for survival: they needed food, they needed water, they needed shelter, and they needed to rescue the living and bury the dead. In that sense, plate tectonics under Avezzano managed to recreate the communal conditions of our evolutionary past quite well. “And earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not maintain, the equality of all men,” one of the survivors wrote.
Regarding the bombing of London during WWII:
Eight million men, women and children in greater London endured the kind of aerial bombardment that even soldiers are rarely subjected to. Often the badly wounded were just given morphine and left to die in the rubble while rescue crews moved on to people they thought they could save. On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down. Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as longstanding patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids. Voluntary admissions to psychiatric wards noticeably declined, even epileptics reported having fewer seizures.
An Irish psychologist named H.A. Lyons found that suicide rates in Belfast dropped 50% during the riots of 1969 and 1970, and homicide and other violent crimes also went down. Depression rates for men and women both declined. Lyons in 1979 wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose, with resulting improvement in mental health. It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement in their community.”
Fritz’s conclusions were later borne out in a study of the city of Yungay, in central Chile, which was struck by a devastating earthquake and rockslide on may 31, 1970. Ninety percent of the population of Yungay died almost instantly, and 70,000 people were killed throughout the region – roughly equivalent to a nuclear strike on that area. The rockslide that buried the city put so much dust in the air that helicopters couldn’t land, and survivors of Yungay were left completely on their own for days. Into this terrifying vacuum, a new social order quickly sprang up. “concepts of individual private property temporarily submerged” anthropologist Anthon Oliver-Smith wrote in his paper “Brotherhood of Pain.” “The crisis also had an immediate status-leveling effect on the nascent community of survivors it had created. A sense of brotherhood prevailed as Indian and mestizo, lower and upper class, collaborated in the collective efforts to obtain immediate necessities and survive. As soon as relief flights began delivering aid to the area, class division returned and the sense of brotherhood disappeared. The modern world had arrived.
If there are phrases that characterize the life of our early ancestors, “community of sufferers” and “brotherhood of pain” surely must come close. Their lives were probably less labor intensive than lives in modern society, as demonstrated by the !Kung, but the mortality rate would have been much higher. The advantages of group cooperation would include far more effective hunting and defense, and groups that failed to function cooperatively must have gradually died out.
What catastrophes seem to do, sometimes in the span of a few minutes, is turn back the clock on a million years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because here is no survival outside of group survival, that genetically evolved and chemically existent tribal instinct is revealed, and that creates a bond that many people sorely miss.
Where else could this tribal instinct be reflected in modern society? Read Chapter 13.
Modern Crises and Tribal Instinct