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Mob-rule or a source of wisdom?
The history of crowd behaviour is contested and chequered - but the time feels right to consider more closely the transformative qualities of crowds
In a world where COVID meant we got used to being in our own homes rather than in public spaces, we can now perhaps better understand there is something tangibly different about being together with others. Given we frequently talk about the collective nature of human behaviour, it makes sense to explore what is perhaps the pinnacle of this: the crowd. This is surely the ultimate form of our collective selves, where we can see people gathered in one place with a common purpose.
Of course, popular notions of crowds are often as dangerous places, where people are ‘swept up’ and ‘lose control’. Accounts of the size of crowds are readily contested, perhaps reflecting their symbolic importance, and there are often hugely diverging accounts of whether they were violent or peaceful.
More recent behavioural science actually has plenty to say about crowds and challenges historical negative narratives. In fact, it seems crowds are increasingly being seen in a new light, as creative places that can offer us guidance and understanding on difficult issues. Given the challenges we face today, this perspective deserves exploring.
Anxiety about crowds
We first explore the long history of anxiety about crowds. Psychological theories of the crowd have often accounted for their fervent and impassioned nature by aligning emotionality with a loss of identity and sense. If being part of a crowd involved the loss of personal identity then this meant the loss of behavioural control, leading to emotion dominating over rationality. On this basis, crowds came to represent irrationality.
Gustave Le Bon is the name most commonly associated with the origins of crowd psychology that supported this view. His book, published in 1895, ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ was a huge success and continues to shape the way we think about this topic today. He wrote that the “unconscious action of crowds substituting itself for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principle characteristics of the present age”.
More recently however it has become clear that Le Bon’s views were shaped by the turbulent times he lived in, that of class conflict and popular militancy following the 1871 Paris revolution. It was all too easy to draw a parallel between the presence of crowds and the apparent collapse of social order. Critiques of crowds were often as much about the fear of the rise of socialism and distrust of democratic politics.
Within this political environment, Le Bon’s particular flavour of crowd psychology positioned rational action as the sole property of the individual, and the crowd as that of collective irrationality. It’s not hard to see how this could be seen as a means to delegitimise popular struggle, undermining both the motivation and legitimacy of collectivist movements. As Fergus Neville succinctly puts it:
“By a priori pathologizing alternative visions of society as irrational, any challenge to the hierarchical social and political status quo was rendered mindless, and the rejection of identities in traditional (unequal) systems was treated as a lack of identity per se”
If crowds are pathologized as irrational then de facto this decontextualizes them, with no attention given to the reasons that led people to assemble, or indeed to the role that security forces can have in driving conflict. Indeed, Neville writes that historical evidence often suggests crowd violence is frequently initiated by security forces and often responsible for killing many more people than the crowd.
A more constructive take on crowds
An alternative view of crowds is less as being threatening and irrational and more as a means to navigate the world, to share our thoughts and feelings, to find ways to make change happen and create a better future. Sociologist Emile Durkheim set out the way that crowds are a way that members of a society come together and synchronize their thoughts and behaviours through the use of shared slogans, signs, and movements. Emotions of the participants are stimulated, leading to what he called ‘collective effervescence’ a sense of ‘emotional communion’, which offers participants a means to develop a sense of belonging and shared beliefs.
Martin Seligman also offers us a useful lens to explore this, suggesting that we become more effective if we do not live simply in the present but rather constantly model what might be ahead and seek information to explore this, evaluating alternatives and then deciding on the best course of action. The relevant point for us is that as humans we have been hugely effective when we do this as groups rather than individuals, indicating that crowds can be places where we intuitively share information, plan together, jointly carry out plans, monitor each other’s progress and adjust accordingly.
From this we can see that crowds are far from something that irrational and destructive – indeed the opposite can certainly be the case.
The mechanisms of how crowds think together
To develop this further, we turn to Stephen Reicher who sets out some of the key social psychological mechanisms that help use to understand crowd behaviour. First, he argues that identity is not lost within the crowd, but rather there is a cognitive transformation from personal to social level identification. It is through this that crowd members act meaningfully, reflecting the norms of their salient shared (social) identity.
In addition to the cognitive shift, other work focusses on the relational and emotional transformations within crowds. Crowds result in a relational transformation so that social relations improve as we become part of the collective self. There is a wide range of evidence to suggest that ingroup membership facilitates trust, cooperation, a decrease in stress, comfort in close physical proximity, and helping behaviours. This also in turn leads to an emotional transformation with crowd members feeling empowered to shape their world realising shared goals creating intense positive affect.
When participants see others in a crowd as sharing their social identity (e.g. communicated through ingroup symbols, behaviours, or emotions), then social between-crowd members have sense of connectedness and a feeling of being valued by others.
In contrast to ‘everyday’ life, which may be characterised with doubt and insecurity, the crowd participants can find relief from personal uncertainty as their perspective is reflected back by fellow group members.
Crowds make change happen
While we can see the case for a constructive view of the crowd, is there evidence that they actually make change happen? The evidence for this is starting to mount from different sources (see here and here for some additional reading). The suffragette’s movement of 1910–1914, which led eventually to female suffrage, was characterized by marches and symbolic protests (such as participants chaining themselves to railings). The Paris protests of May 1968 started with a university protest which led to widespread occupations, wildcat strikes, and huge demonstrations almost toppled the government of de Gaulle. Among the results, were not only material rewards and worker control in matters of job regulation, but also to “an upsurge in worker interest in the construction of an alternative society”
More recently we have seen huge protests relating to climate change and social justice movements of Me Too and Black Lives Matter: it is perhaps too soon to be able to comment on what these have delivered but surely we can point to some tangible shifts in public consciousness on these issues and a shift in the willingness of public bodies, in some cases at least, to take more steps to better align with the movements’ aims.
Of course, trying to determine the causes of social change is no easy task. The shift in the action of public bodies may not always come purely from these public movements, but also relying on the time and active engagement and lobbying from activists. For example, Press for Change has made great strides in the trans-rights movement through their legal, parliamentary, and public engagement work – channelling the movement of the crowd into the changes in the legal system. Operation Black Vote operates in a similar way, using public engagement as well as political lobbying to increase political representation.
Implications for brands and public bodies
It is perhaps a little odd to think of crowds in the same breath as the aims of brands and governments but perhaps it is because of the legacy of people such as Le Bon that it is tempting to see them as violent and irrational – rather than constructive and sane.
If we can rethink the notion of crowds and see them as constructive places, then bringing people together has an entirely different feeling to it. Look at the way in which music festivals, sporting events and carnivals operate – as joyful shared experiences but often with wider underlying meanings and messages concerning the importance of friendship, equality and sharing. There is a huge array of challenges that many brands and public bodies are hoping to achieve, such as around climate change, wellbeing and social justice so perhaps these organisations can think creatively about the way to harness the positive aspects of crowds we have been discussing.
And does a crowd necessarily need to be physical? We can see digital platforms as allow us to create virtual crowds – as we have noted previously with the vast numbers of people that are brought together on gaming platforms for example.
One of the big challenges of making change happen is that people struggle to see the way that their own individual contribution makes any difference but also not quite being able to imagine what different, more connected ways of being and living feel like. The transformative nature of crowds allows us to occupy our social selves much more directly than we can experience in everyday life, sustaining us long after the event itself.
With that in mind, we will next week be talking about the issue of hope and the role this plays in sustaining us in the face of what can seem like impossible odds.
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