What is crowd psychology?

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Crowd behavior is the study of how the behavior of people in groups differs from that of individuals. People in crowds often become much more focused on their social identity than on their individual identity. As a result, they are much more influenced by the norms of the group.
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Crowds are groups of people who are together for short periods of time. The study of crowd behavior examines the actions that people in a crowd perform and how these actions differ from the behavior of individuals acting alone. Crowd behavior became a focus of scholarly thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in reaction to social turmoil in western Europe. Italian criminologist Scipio Sighele was among the first to write about crowd behavior; French psychologist Gustave Le Bon , the founder of crowd psychology, formalized and popularized the concept with his book The Crowd, published in 1895. Le Bon’s ideas reached a wide audience and are said to have influenced German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Because crowds have performed many senseless and destructive acts, both historically and in modern times, understanding crowd behavior remains extremely important for psychologists.

The term “crowd” refers to a wide spectrum of human gatherings, varying in their complexity and the intention with which people join them. Some crowds are casual ones in which people come together by happenstance, such as a group of pedestrians standing on a sidewalk. These tend to be simple, disorganized groups of people who do not know one another and will probably not see each other again. Other crowds are conventionalized; the people have all chosen a common activity, such as watching a parade or a sporting event, and express excitement in standard ways, such as cheering. Some crowds are purposive, choosing to be together for a common goal, such as a rally or political protest. These groups are often highly cohesive and highly organized.

Because crowds differ so much in their composition, organization, and purpose, there is also considerable variation in typical crowd behavior. Popular and scholarly attention has tended to focus on situations in which crowd behavior is considered problematic. In these situations, the crowd often has an unusual problem to solve rapidly—for example, how to respond to a hostile police force. The occurrence of riots and violence attests to the fact that these sorts of problems are not always solved constructively by crowds. It should be noted, however, that crowds are capable of behaving in positive ways as well.

Underlying Psychological Processes

Early theories of crowd behavior hypothesized that unruly crowds were made up of criminals or the mentally deficient. Proponents of this perspective assumed that crowd behavior could be explained by the individual personalities of people in the crowd and that certain kinds of people were more likely to be found in a crowd. Le Bon provided a more psychological analysis of crowd behavior, recognizing that even people of high intelligence could become members of an unruly crowd. He believed that crowds transform people, obliterating their normal abilities to be rational and putting them in a hypnotic, highly suggestible state. Le Bon disapproved of crowd behavior in all forms; consequently, in his book he painted an extremely negative picture of crowd behavior.

Modern social psychological research suggests that neither of these early viewpoints is a good description of the psychological forces underlying crowd behavior. Experimental research has determined that almost any individual could be influenced to behave in uncharacteristic ways under the right circumstances. Le Bon’s perspective has also been greatly refined. Rather than relying on his concepts of mass hypnosis and loss of rationality, modern researchers draw primarily from social identity theory to help explain crowd behavior. Social identity theory, originally developed by European psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, posits that individuals derive an important part of their sense of identity from the groups to which they belong. Groups such as one’s family, school, or religion can all be positive sources of identity.

Under some circumstances, crowds can become a source of identity as well. A key psychological mechanism through which crowds become a source of identity is deindividuation, the loss of a person’s inhibitions and sense of identity when he or she is in the presence of others. Crowds are especially likely to lead to deindividuation for a number of reasons. First, crowds cause individuals to feel less accountable for their actions; they are less likely to be singled out and feel less personally responsible for any act the crowd commits. Crowds also focus attention away from the self, so one’s own values and internal standards become less influential. Thus, in line with social identity theory, deindividuation leads a person to become focused on social identity rather than individual identity. When social identity is important to a person, he or she becomes particularly susceptible to social influence. Group norms, or a group’s standards and expectations regarding appropriate behavior, become especially significant, and the individual is likely to conform strictly to those norms. In the short time frame of many crowd gatherings, the norm becomes whatever everyone else is doing.

It should be noted, however, that being amid a group of people does not always lead one to become deindividuated, nor does it always lead to the ascendancy of social identity over individual identity. Often crowds do not engage in collective behavior at all. For example, on most city streets, pedestrians walking and milling about do not consider themselves to be part of a group and do not draw a sense of identity from the people around them.

Eugen Tarnow noted that these wide variations in the effect of crowds on individuals can be best understood by identifying two phases of a crowd: an individual phase and a conforming phase. During the individual phase, people move freely about. At these times, individuals are not particularly aware of their membership in a crowd and are not particularly influenced by those around them. In the conforming phase, however, individuals in a crowd are highly aware of the group of which they are a part, and they show high levels of conformity. During this phase, the group norms heavily influence each individual’s behavior. Crowds typically alternate between these two phases, sometimes acting collectively, sometimes individually. For example, at a sporting event, fans are sometimes talking to their friends about topics of individual interest. However, when points are scored by the home team, the crowd responds collectively, as part of a social group. At these moments spectators are not responding as individuals but as members of a social group, “fans.”

The behaviors that members of a crowd perform will thus depend on how strongly the crowd becomes a source of social identity and what behavioral norms become established among the group. Because these factors vary considerably from group to group, crowds cannot be characterized as wholly negative or uniformly simplistic, as Le Bon described them.

The Violent Crowd

Violent and destructive acts are among the most studied forms of crowd behavior. Many historical examples, from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, attest to the destructive power of crowds. However, a crowd of deindividuated people will not become violent unless a group norm of violence becomes established. In riots, for example, there is usually an identifiable precipitating event, such as one person smashing a window, that introduces a norm of violence. If a critical mass of people immediately follows suit, a riot ensues. Some other crowds, such as lynch mobs, have the norm of violence previously established by their culture or by the group’s previous actions.

Further, there is some evidence to suggest that the way in which a crowd of people is viewed by authorities can escalate crowd conflicts. For example, in 1998, European psychologists Clifford Stott and Stephen Reicher interviewed police officers involved with controlling a riot in Great Britain. Their analysis revealed that while police officers recognize that crowds contain subgroups of more dangerous or less dangerous members, they tend to treat all group members as potentially dangerous. The police officers’ negative expectations often translate into combative behavior toward all crowd members. By acting on their negative expectations, authority figures often elicit the very behaviors they hope to prevent, which often leads to increased violence and conflict escalation.

Much evidence suggests that there is a direct relationship between degree of deindividuation and the extremity of a crowd’s actions. For example, in 1986, Brian Mullen examined newspaper accounts of sixty lynchings that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. His analysis revealed that the more people present in the mob, the more violent and vicious the event. Similarly, Leon Mann found in his analysis of twenty-one cases of threatened suicides that crowds watching were more likely to engage in crowd baiting (encouraging the person to jump from a ledge or bridge) when crowds were large and when it was dark. On a more mundane level, sports players are more aggressive when wearing identical uniforms than when dressed in their own clothes. Any factor that increases anonymity seems to increase deindividuation and the power of social identity, thus also increasing the likelihood of extreme behavior.

In South Africa, psychological research on these phenomena has been presented in murder trials. People being tried for murder have argued that these psychological principles help explain their antisocial behavior. The use of psychological research findings for these purposes has sparked a great deal of controversy in the field.

The Apathetic Crowd

While crowds are most infamous for inciting people to rash action, sometimes crowds inhibit behavior. Research on helping behavior suggests that helping is much less likely to occur when there are many people watching. This well-established phenomenon, known as the bystander effect, was researched and described by American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané. In a typical experiment, participants overhear an “accident,” such as someone falling off a ladder, and researchers observe whether participants go to help. Most people help when they are alone, but people are significantly less likely to help when they are with a crowd of other people. Darley and Latané argued that bystanders in a crowd experience a diffusion of responsibility—that is, each individual feels less personally responsible to act because each assumes that someone else will do so.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that in many situations, it is unclear whether an event is an emergency. For example, an adult dragging a screaming child out of a store could be a kidnapper making away with a child or a parent responding to a tantrum. Bystanders observe the reactions of others in the crowd to help them determine what the appropriate course of action is in an ambiguous situation. However, because the situation is ambiguous, typically each individual is equally confused and unsure. By waiting for someone else to act, bystanders convey the impression to others that they think nothing is wrong. Psychologists call this phenomenon pluralistic ignorance. People assume that even though others are behaving in exactly the same way as themselves (not acting), they are doing so for a different reason (knowing the situation is not an emergency). Thus, a social norm of inaction can also become established in a crowd.

The Prosocial Crowd

Despite the potential for great violence and destruction, most crowds that gather do so quite uneventfully. Further, sometimes crowd behavior is quite positive and prosocial. Research shows that sometimes deindividuation can lead to prosocial behavior. For example, nonviolent protests operate under an explicit norm of peaceful resistance and rarely lead to escalated violence on both sides. The power of prosocial norms was experimentally established in a 1979 study conducted by psychologists Robert Johnson and Leslie Downing. Johnson and Downing had participants dress in either nurses’ apparel or a white robe and hood like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. Some from each group had their individual identity made known, while the rest did not. All participants were then given the opportunity to deliver an electric shock to someone who had previously insulted them. Among participants wearing the robes, those who were not identified delivered higher shock levels than those who were. Presumably these people were deindividuated and thus more strongly influenced by the violent cue of their costume. Of those in nurses’ uniforms, the opposite was observed. Unidentified, deindividuated participants gave much less intense shocks than identified participants did. They were also more strongly influenced by the cues around them, but in this case the cues promoted prosocial action.


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