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HPRU psychologists working to understand the impact of emergencies

18 October, 2018

Psychologists from the HPRU in Emergency Preparedness and Response and the HPRU in Modelling Methodologies are working together to understand and mitigate the behavioural and psychological impacts of emergencies and disasters. Their work, conducted as a collaboration between Public Health England, academic partners, policy-makers, practitioners and members of the public, supports Public Health England and its partners to prepare for, and respond to major public health incidents.  This includes many aspects of the public health emergency preparedness, resilience and response landscape; from how we prepare the health system and the public for major incidents and emergencies, to understanding and informing the response to outbreaks of infectious disease, mass casualty incidents and terrorist attacks.  Their work also takes in other aspects of the application of behavioural science to health protection and public health; such as behaviour change and chronic health risks, improving vaccine uptake, adherence to medication and treatment seeking and workplace well-being.

Last month, five members of the team delivered a session entitled, “Applications of social psychology to mass emergencies, disasters, and public health incidents” at the British Psychological Society’s Social Section Annual Conference held at the University of Keele.  The session, chaired by PHE’s Behavioural Science Team leader, Dr Richard Amlôt, included a series of presentations showing how the team are employing cutting edge theory and methods from the behavioural and social sciences to understand the impacts of major incidents and disasters, and to design strategies to mitigate those impacts for members of the public, and the emergency response community.

Dr Holly Carter opened the session, presenting her award-winning research conducted in partnership with the University of Sussex and King’s College London.  Her talk, entitled, “Crowd psychology and communication in mass decontamination settings”, summarised the results from a program of research which has applied an understanding of the behaviour of groups in emergency situations to the management of large numbers of potentially contaminated casualties in chemical incidents. The outcomes of this research continue to inform guidance and training delivered by PHE to the emergency services, and helps to demonstrate how the application of psychological theory to the understanding of real world phenomena can directly benefit our risk communication and casualty management strategies.  You can read more about Dr Carter’s work here:

Next, Louis Gauntlett, a PHE-funded PhD student based at PHE-Porton and King’s College London, presented his project entitled, “how to inform the public about protective actions in a nuclear or radiological incident”.  A second year PhD student, Louis is working to understand what we can do to help people to prepare for nuclear incidents.  Many people do not consider these threats in their daily lives, but knowing what to do and undertaking some simple steps should the worst happen, could significantly reduce the health effects of these incidents. He will design evidence-based pre-event education materials to inform the public, and encourage the uptake of simple preparedness steps that could help in a range of emergency situations.  In a new collaboration with the University of Hawaii, Louis is working to understand how the public responded to the false alarm that was sent out to the population of the islands, warning of an incoming ballistic missile.  Louis’ systematic review on how best to prepare the public for nuclear incidents is available here:

How people change their behaviour in response to a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease can have a significant effect on its spread and impact. Dr Dale Weston presented the outcomes of a two scoping reviews entitled, “Representing human behaviour in infectious disease outbreak models”.  This work has helped us to develop our understanding of how human behaviour is currently represented in infectious disease models, and draws on insights from the behavioural and social sciences to improve the incorporation of behaviour within infectious disease modelling. The reviews provide an overview of the current ‘gold standard’ for modelling human behaviour, and an account of the behaviour change theories that may be most applicable within this context. Critically, our efforts to model behaviour in infectious disease outbreak scenarios should make greater use of high quality behavioural data to parameterise models.  You can read Dale’s published review here:

Finally, Evangelos Ntontis, a PHE-funded PhD student at the University of Sussex and PHE-Porton presented his project exploring, “social psychology and community resilience in flooding”.  Evangelos’ work has followed the communities in York affected by severe flooding in 2014/15, to examine how the spontaneous communities that emerge work together, interact with authorities, and change over time.  These groups become the basis of the provision of social support and other positive psychological outcomes. Understanding how these groups function and are sustained is critical to understanding and developing community resilience in recovery, and preparing for future flooding events.  Evangelos worked with flooded and nearby unaffected residents, conducted cross-sectional surveys over 18 months, and analysed official guidance and policy documents. His work has important implications for practitioners and policy makers, with regards to how they plan for and support emergent communities in emergencies and disasters.  You can read about his interviews with flood affected residents here:

His review of guidance documents can be read here:

The organiser of the conference, Professor Cliff Stott from the University of Keele and chair of the British Psychological Society’s Social Psychology Section, said of the session, “This is fantastic stuff, showing the wider relevance of crowd psychology to the understanding of human behaviour in mass emergencies.  The partnerships with Public Health England are a powerful example of knowledge co-production and the application of leading edge theory.”

To contact PHE’s Behavioural Science Team, please email: