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July 23, 2018
by Arthur Hunter

Did Crowd Psychology Prevent the Duck Boat Passengers from Donning Life Vests?

July 23, 2018 16:00 by Arthur Hunter  [About the Author]

First published July 22, 2018 16:31 PT, due to this being an evolving story, this is an updated revision.
The facts surrounding the duck boat that capsized on Table Rock Lake last Friday, killing 17, are still emerging.  One fact revealed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol on Saturday was that none of the passengers were wearing a life jacket, despite being easily accessible to the passengers.  While no one yet can answer as to why none of the 31 people on the boat put on a life jacket, one theory states that crowd psychology may have been at play.

Crowd psychology has been studied for decades, it basically says that people behave and make decisions in a crowd in ways they would not normally do if alone or few in number.  The bystander effect is a type of crowd psychology where someone who needs urgent help is less likely to receive assistance when in a large crowd.  Could a form of the bystander effect have been a factor in the reason why none of the 31 passengers on the duck boat were wearing life jackets?  

In a large group of people, there is less of a chance that someone will act initially in a way that seriously deviates from the rest of the crowd.   People tend to resist being the "one that stands out".  In a situation where a boat is fighting to stay afloat, and the captain has not yet ordered anyone to wear a life jacket, the largest barrier to getting everyone in a life jacket is waiting for that one initial person to break the status quo. 

Psychologists and therapists have documented this phenomenon numerous times.  "Once a person acts, then like a domino, others follow this lead, abdicating responsibility to make a unique helpful choice," states Christie Hunter, a licensed clinical therapist in British Columbia.   "The difficulty comes in being the first person," she continues, "through recognition, confidence, or a sense of responsibility to make a different choice, interrupting the [status quo]."

Robin McBrier, who has been a passenger on a duck boat, spoke to us about her experience.  "When we went out onto the lake I wondered aloud why the captain wouldn’t have at least asked the children to put on life jackets. Since no one else seemed concerned, I didn’t press the issue."

In a case where there is clearly some danger, and yet not a single person in a crowd puts on a life jacket, it can easily create a kind of psychological barrier that no one wants to breach.  And in any kind of situation like this people tend to wait for an authority figure to tell them what to do, putting even more emphasis on the responsibility of the captain to tell his passengers to put on their life jackets.  

Wearing life jackets on duck boats is extremely uncommon.  They are not required by law.  Therefore, for someone to suddenly don a life jacket during rough waters could signify an admission of fear, and no one wants to be that "one" person who admits to fear, possibly embarrassing themselves and/or spreading panic.

Dr. Rick Nauert, an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals, says "it takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd’s direction – and that the other 95 per cent follow without realizing it."  This can easily explain why, if a captain is not donning his life jacket, that no one else would either.

Was crowd psychology at play as to why no one put on a life jacket?  Until more facts emerge, we do not know, but there is a possibility that it could have been a factor, whether large or small. 

About the Author

Arthur Hunter

Arthur Hunter is a computer programmer and co-founder of Theravive. He has been in the tech industry for over 20 years, with multiple Microsoft certifications. He has a love and passion for the intersection of technology and mental health and how the gadgets we use and the time we spend on them play a part in our mental well being, for better or worse. Together with his wife in 2007 they founded Theravive, which currently has thousands of licensed therapists and psychologists. He enjoys writing on occasion, reporting on mental health and technology. You can reach Arthur at 360-350-8627 or write him at webadmin - at -

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