Sociologists have known for some time of the widespread incidence of prosocial behavior in the aftermath of disasters (research summarized in Rodriguez, Trainor, and Quarantelli 2006). They have also criticized the role of media in spreading “disaster myths” which include the idea of widespread anti-social behavior (Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski 2006). In this essay I will investigate the evolutionary theory and neuroscience needed to account for such prosocial behavior, as well as to discuss the political entailments and consequence of media framing emphasizing if not inventing widespread antisocial behavior.
The basic political theory perspective is the following: far from showing a Hobbesian nightmare of atomized predation in the wake of the failure of the state, the overwhelming evidence of prosocial behavior in disasters shows the fragility of the atomization practice of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. It’s not that the state is needed to keep a precarious social contract together so that otherwise “naturally” atomic individuals will not prey upon each other; it’s that the state is needed to enforce policies that foreclose the prosocial behavior that would otherwise emerge (Ostrom 2005) and that does in fact emerge in disasters....
Some media coverage of disasters emphasizes prosocial behavior, celebrating it as evidence of common humanity underneath “political” or “social” divisions (rarely thematized, it must be said, as “class” divisions). However, the Katrina coverage was notable for its credulity with regard to rumors (disproved within a month or so) of anti-social behavior that in retrospect were little more than shameful racial stereotypes of violent and sexually aggressive African-American males. So it often depends on whether the “right kind” of victims of disasters is being portrayed.
It always feels somewhat ghoulish to point to my work in this area, as if I were profiting from the attention gathered by disasters, but the importance of the topic I hope overcomes any self-promotion worries. So here are links to my Katrina paper, its Power Point, and a video interview about the presentation. Here's the Power Point for a similar presentation on the Haitian earthquake. The opening clip of the presentation is typical Fox News scare-mongering; the second is the CNN clip embedded above.