How Disasters Bring Out Our Kindness

In disasters, it's human nature to band together and be kind to one another in order to survive

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As the East Coast awakened to the aftermath of Sandy— with millions of people without power, many lacking running water and New York City’s transit system crippled, possibly for days—many are facing enormous emotional and physical challenges. But at least, say experts, they can rely on the kindness of strangers—not just loved ones— to temper the blow.

Although there’s a mentality that disasters provoke frenzied selfishness and brutal survival-of-the-fittest competition, the reality is that people coping with crises are actually quite altruistic.

That’s what we already seeing in the places worst hit by Sandy. Yesterday, Newark Mayor Corey Booker— who personally helped dozens of people who asked him for assistance via Twitter long into the night— tweeted, “Police have reported ZERO looting or crimes of opportunity in Newark. And ceaseless reports of acts of kindness abound everywhere. #Gratitude.”

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Across the affected region, people have been checking in on sick or elderly neighbors, sharing food and information, driving carefully through intersections without working traffic lights and otherwise supporting each other. While there have been some reports of looting in parts of Brooklyn, overall, the picture is one of cooperation.

There is a long history of such cooperation in the face of crisis. Older Londoners, for example, often fondly recall the years of the Blitz, when their city was relentlessly bombed by the Germans during WWII. New Yorkers, too, tend to think back on the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as a time of great solidarity. The same is true after most major earthquakes or tsunamis around the world.

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Although Hurricane Katrina brought awful (and frequently false) rumors of horrific crimes, the experience for most people during the immediate crisis was one of coming together. As the authors of a 2008 studyexploring myths and facts about disasters wrote, “While there were well-documented instances of brutal hijacking, rioting, and looting in New Orleans after the deep flooding caused by the hurricane, there were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie among the affected population.”

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They describe hotels taking in homeless families, people of all races holding hands and praying together— even a talent show, with flashlights as spotlights, held at New Orleans Charity Hospital to boost morale.

The researchers conclude that the idea that disasters bring out the worst in people is generally a myth, writing “[N]atural and man-made disasters are followed by increases in altruistic behavior and social solidarity.”

In fact, most of the worst problems following Katrina occurred when authorities and others tried to stop “looting,” much of which was people simply taking what they needed to survive from stores that had been abandoned. One of the people shot by vigilantes was a man who’d been rescuing hundreds of people with his boat.

Author Rebecca Solnit describes the surge in altruism during disasters in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, and in an interview once told me: “The great majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic or even beyond altruistic, as they risk themselves for others. We improvise the conditions of survival beautifully.”

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She said, “I feel often that we don’t have the right language to talk about emotions in disasters. Everyone is on edge, of course, but it also pulls people away from a lot of trivial anxieties and past and future concerns and gratuitous preoccupations that we have, and refocuses us in a very intense way… In some ways, people behave better than in ordinary life and in some disasters people find [out about] the meaningful role of deep social connections and see their absence in everyday life.”

In fact, we may be wired to act just that way. Our brains are designed so that our stress systems can be soothed by social support: in response to the calming words or gentle touch of loved ones, for example, the bonding hormone oxytocin tends to lower levels of stress hormones. We learn this from infancy from our parents or caregivers; as we grow, our stress systems remain intricately linked to the presence of others who can provide comfort and relief from anxiety. Hundreds of studies now show that strong social support extends life and improves health in multiple ways, acting primarily though its effects on the stress system.

And during disasters, our social networks largely determine our fates: the more connections we have and the stronger our bonds are to each other, the more likely we are to survive, not just physically but emotionally. To prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, these ties are the best medicine. It’s when we face the toughest times that our true nature reveals itself: we’re in it together. Though no one wants to face catastrophe, when we do, it can bring unexpected gifts— but only if we share and value each other.

(MORE: ‘Paradise Built in Hell:’ How Disaster Brings Out the Best in People)