Crowds and Myths

The weird thing for me about crowds is that while much of psychology focuses on how complicated individual humans are, they are even more confusing and complicated when they are put together into groups- there is an entire branch of psychology (known as, not surprisingly, crowd psychology) dedicated to understanding the difference between people as individuals and in a crowd.

The media, psychology, and sociology, have many stereotypes of crowds- most of these lead to the conclusion that crowds are irrational, suggestible and even dangerous, a sort of hive mind run by its collective not-quite-conscious. Most of these views, and the theories behind them, are taken from examples of destructive crowds, such as riots and demonstrations. (Annoyingly, the example of a riot and crowd behaviour used in my A-level textbook was actually about Bristol- not the best side of the city…).

However, looking at studies and observations of crowd behaviour, it is only a minority of crowds that become so destructive; non-violent crowds are researched much more rarely, which doesn’t seem fair.

One of the biggest stereotypes is that crowds are fuelled by their anonymity, as people lose their identities and rationales in the process of deindividuation– this is a popular notion, described in detail by social psychologists like Zimbardo. However, while this does sound like a good explanation, and is useful in some circumstances, it fails to take into account that most people in crowds aren’t anonymous- they normally go to events with friends or family, meaning their actions will be seen so they would be accountable for anything they did while part of the crowd.

A new theory of how people behave in crowds, and to me a more useful one, is Convergence Theory. This theory says that crowd behaviour is not caused by the crowd: instead individuals take their behaviours into the crowd, meaning crowd actions reflect beliefs that are already there. Using this theory, crowd behaviours stop being irrational violence, becoming a more sensible reaction to popular views.

So if convergence theory is true, then the media shouldn’t be so quick to declare crowds as violent and irrational and should instead look towards the reasons behind the crowd, for that will probably provide a much better picture of what behaviour to expect and why.

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