Hillsborough, Heysel and the Availability Bias

One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing images  of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster on the television news. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the crush, with an estimated 766 injured. I lived on the other side of the world, had never been to see a football game, and presumably had little comprehension of what the victims had gone through, yet the images of the crush, and of a few people being hauled to safety from it, made a strong and disturbing impression.

Not having moved to the UK until years after the tragedy, I hadn’t been aware of the long and fraught aftermath of the tragedy until last week, when an independent panel led by the Bishop of Liverpool issued the report of their investigation into the disaster. The panel also released thousands of documents that had not previously been available to the public. The investigation found, among other things, that

  • The main cause of the disaster was a failure of police control, though “multiple failures” within other institutions also contributed
  • There were numerous safety deficiencies at the Hillsborough stadium, which were well-known to authorities in advance of the disaster
  • There was “delay in recognising that there were mass casualties, the major incident plan was not correctly activated and only limited parts were then put into effect” and “a swifter, more appropriate, better-focused and properly equipped response had the potential to save more lives” (The panel estimated that 41 of the 96 fatalities could perhaps have been averted by a swifter response)
  • The South Yorkshire Police and the Ambulance Service altered witness statements from their staff in an attempt to cover up their failures
  • Elements within the police, media and parliament “sought to develop and publicise a version of events that focused on several police officers’ allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness and violence among a large number of Liverpool fans… Yet, from the mass of documents, television and CCTV coverage disclosed to the panel there is no evidence to support these allegations other than a few isolated examples”

The way in which the true causes of the disaster were covered up is obviously disturbing, but reading some the media reports, original papers and survivors’ reports and watching some of the footage of the disaster (available here) last week, I couldn’t help but think that the most puzzling and disturbing aspect of the disaster remains the way in which the police and stadium stewards appear to have responded to the crush in the first few minutes. In footage of the disaster, and from survivor reports, it is clear that, for several minutes, the police officers  and stewards on the field directly in front of the crush did nothing to help those who were attempting to escape, and in some cases even pushed people attempting to scale the barriers back into the terraces. One survivor, who observed events from one of the higher stands, recalls that

Fans were trying to climb out of the middle section of the End over the front railings and over the sides and fans from the stand above were pulling people up from the back. This was occurring in large numbers, not just the occasional person.

Policemen were standing by the railings trying to prevent people from climbing over. I could clearly see that they were pushing people back into the stand. Even from where I was sitting, you could see that many people were in a lot of difficulty.

It is tempting to think that the police and stewards simply didn’t realise the amount of pressure people were under, however it is hard to sustain this interpretation in the light of survivor reports, according to which people were screaming for help and crying out that ‘people are dying’ to nearby police and stewards who were only a few feet away in some cases. One survivor reports:

There was a woman in front, I couldn’t see her, she started screaming, she was shouting out ‘let me out.’ . . . this plea for help turned into a full wrenched scream, one long continuous scream. I can remember thinking to myself “Please stop screaming you’ll be alright, please stop. . . .

But it continued, she started pleading for someone to help her. Everyone it seemed was shouting at anyone who walked past on the running track, but nobody took any notice. I can remember a steward walking along, how could he ignore all the noise especially the woman screaming. From behind someone shouted, “Hey bollocks open the gate, there’s people dying in here!” The steward kept walking past pen 4 and then across the front of pen 3, he then suddenly stopped turned and faced pen 3. Surely he can’t ignore us now, open your eyes, do something I thought. I could hear others shouting at him pleading, but he gazed into pen 3 for a second and turned away face expressionless.

Another survivor recalls:

There were cries for help, cries of pain and cries to the police just a matter of yards in front of me to open the gates at the perimeter fence. The police were ignoring the requests and as I caught the eyes of one myself I made a point of shouting at him to open the gates. He just looked at me, pointed behind me and mouthed at me to get back, which of course was totally impossible. It appeared as though a gate down at the front had sprung open under the pressure but it looked to me as though the police were pushing the crowd back in.

And then:

 I managed to wriggle upwards, half way above the crowd. Some fella who was stuck there himself stretched out his hand . . . He helped my foot so I could drag myself upwards onto the top of the crowd. I crawled towards the gate down at the front, which was maybe approximately 20 feet or so in front of me, so it came up very fast. As I got to the gate I heard somebody shout to me, “There’s people dying here!” – I already knew.

I grabbed the top of the frame at the opened gate and was about to escape when a policeman aggressively grabbed hold of me with both hands at my chest stopping me. He shouted at me, pushing me back and I quote: “You fucking twat!” as he stopped my progress. He wasn’t gonna let me out but there was no way I was going back in there.

How could police officers and stewards have done nothing to help, and in some cases actively prevented attempts to escape?

The most charitable explanation seems to be that they assumed that the cause of the crush was a completely out-of-control crowd, and that spectators allowed onto the field were likely to attack others (e.g. the opposing fans seated at the other end of the field). Perhaps they feared that allowing fans onto the field would lead to an even bigger tragedy than not doing so, for example, because once on the field, the escaped fans would attack opposition supporters.

It is not at all clear that this interpretation can be sustained, for there is little evidence that those individuals who had succeeded in reaching the field made any attempt to attack anyone. Most of them either wandered around in a dazed (and in some cases seriously injured) state or attempted to help those who remained in the crush. But suppose we assume that the nearby officers and stewards genuinely did fear that allowing more supporters to escape from the terraces would lead to an even worse outcome than leaving them in the crush. If this is the case, then the initial response seems to be a clear example of the biasing effect of the ‘availability heuristic’.

The availability heuristic is a method via which we determine the importance of an event or state of affairs: the easier it is to call something to mind–the more mentally ‘available’ it is–the greater importance we attach to it. Though the heuristic may work well in some circumstances, it is well-known that it (or similar heuristics) can lead to serious errors in thinking about risks, since it often leads us to over-estimate the badness (or goodness) and likelihood of outcomes that happened recently and/or had great emotional salience. For example, many would argue that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the availability heuristic lead many to overestimate the risk of further terrorist attacks.

In the case of Hillsborough, the most available event in the minds of police officers and stadium stewards was probably the Heysel Disaster, which had occurred four years earlier. In that disaster, a group of Liverpool fans attending European Cup Final in Brussels had attacked opposition Juventus fans causing 39 deaths. There had also been several other instances of extreme football hooliganism during the 1970s and 80s which may have been prominent in the minds of officers and stewards.

I am not suggesting that these past events, and their likely mental availability for officers and stewards at Hillsborough, justify their response–clearly they do not. But they do perhaps help to explain it.

They also raise some difficult questions. These include:

1. Should we attempt to correct the biasing effects of serious and emotionally salient disasters? It seems likely that, absent the recent history of the Heysel Disaster, police and stewards at Hillsborough might have responded differently, and perhaps many lives would have been saved. On the other hand, complete elimination of the availability effects of Heysel, and other instances of football hooliganism, might have had lead to worse decision-making in the face of other events where genuine hooliganism was the problem. Still, it seems clear that there was too much salience attached to hooliganism by British police in the late 1980s.

2. If so, how can these biases be mitigated? I don’t have any concrete suggestions, but, given the huge influence that the media have over what is mentally available to us and what isn’t, one suspects that that would be the place to start.

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