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Crowd Behaviour

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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The mind of the crowd is fundamentally aggressive. Discuss.

Aggressive or panicked crowds have the potential to be truly dangerous, illustrated by high profile disasters such as the 1989 Hillsborough stampede and the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, which resulted in the death of a policeman. More recently, striking images of the 2011 London riots evidenced destruction and violence perpetrated by an angry crowd, whose actions were widely condemned by the public and media. The dangers of crowds are now so widely acknowledged that crowd behaviour and its management is considered just as much the concern of public safety as it is the realm of academia. The prevalence of reports of negative crowd behaviour may suggest that the media presents a distorted view of crowd behaviour; non-aggressive pro-social crowds do not result in such attention grabbing headlines. The lack of aggression evident in many everyday crowds, for example spectators of tennis matches illustrate that crowds are not fundamentally aggressive but incredibly diverse. To understand the nature of crowd behaviour is therefore to question the underlying assumption that a “mind of the crowd” even exists. Such an assumption suggests a hegemonic, mystified view of collective behaviour in which the role of the individual disappears. This essay seeks to “demystify” the crowd by understanding the crowds as a specific form of collective action, distinguishing the crowd from other social groups by its larger size, specificity of location, density of persons and the notion of acting in a socially cohesive manner. In viewing the crowd as a specific form of group behaviour rather than a specifically unique phenomenon this essay seeks to emphasise that individual and group identities remain integral to crowd action which usually remains rational and norm-governed.

Early theorists such as LeBon, Allport and McDougall proposed theories to account for what they saw as the fundamentally aggressive nature of the crowd. LeBon believed that individuals are absorbed into “the mind of the crowd”, causing them to act in primitive, violent and aggressive ways. This is illustrated in his claim that purely by forming part of an organised crowd, man “descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation” (1908:12.) The cause of the descent of civilised, rational behaviour was attributed to the “de-individualusation” of crowd members, a term later developed by Zimbardo to describe the way in which member individuals become anonymous and absolved of personal responsibility. The rapid spread of ideas through a process of contagion enabled the release of unconscious anti-social desires. In this respect, LeBon treats crowd behaviour as a specific phenomenon which drives behaviour, outside of the control of the normally “civilised individual”. Another early theorist, McDougall (1920 in Hogg and Vaughn: 414) promotes the same conclusion that crowds are fundamentally violent, which he attributes to the widespread effect of “primitive emotions” such as fear, which spread rapidly within a crowd. Writing in 1924, Allport (1924: 295) whilst acknowledging the role of the individual, succumbed to the same assumptions which characterised the time period - treating crowd behaviour as inevitably negative and destructive.

Whilst hegemonic views of crowd behaviour are now widely challenged, LeBon and McDougall have made significant contributions. Their writings “may be read as a sustained attack upon collective protest” (Reicher,1987:172.) Early theories on crowd behaviour can be seen to reflect both political and observer biases. Politically, the negative portrayal of crowds was influenced by widespread concerns of a working class revolution due to changes in the structure of society. Thus the crowd became pathologised into “the mob”; an ideological construction seeking to legitimise repression of the working classes. A bias of perspective is also present, as writers perceived crowd action purely as an observer, lacking an understanding of the beliefs and understandings of participants.

To assert that crowd behaviour is fundamentally aggressive fails to account for the variety of crowd gatherings, many of which are non-aggressive. A looting or riotous crowd may indeed be aggressive and destructive, whilst crowds on a religious pilgrimage are far less likely to be. In recognition of the variation in crowd types (Emergency Management Australia, 1999 in Zeitz, et al, 2009) a variety of different crowd types can be identified, including violent crowds, but also spectator, demonstrator and suffocating crowds. Clearly, there is therefore no sole “mind of the crowd” which drives the behaviour of all people once they form part of it. Whilst negative portrayals of crowds may dominate mass media, crowds also hold the capacity to be neutral and pro-social. Drury, Cocking and Reicher’s (2009:502) research on crowd solidarity in times of emergency suggests that the crowd should be no longer be perceived as a problem; they found that the psychological crowd is a “crucial adaptive source for survival in mass emergencies and disasters” as many crowds were found to adopt pro-social behaviour in times of emergency (2009: 503.)

The varied nature of crowd behaviour illustrates that there is a logical, norm governed nature to it, often influenced by the context in which crowds congregate. Turner (in Reicher, 1987) proposed the “emergent norm theory” to account for the role of norms within crowd action. Whilst crowds are a unique, often newly formed social group, he asserts norms emerge from the crowd as the attention of individuals is attracted to distinctive behaviour or distinctive individuals whose behaviours create a norm. However Turner’s theory assumes that crowds sponatiously occur within a normative vacuum, which Reicher (1987) has contested. Reicher highlights the fact that members of a crowd often congregate for a specific purpose and thus bring with them a set of clear norms which regulate their behaviour as members of a specific group. This theory can distinguish between the types of crowds which become aggressive, and those which do not, as due to the norms of certain groups, violence may be less legitimate to some. For example, spectator crowds such as those at homecoming parades or royal appearances congregate with specific peaceful, positive expectations of the behaviour of the crowd.

Further to the norm-governed nature of crowds, claiming the mind of the crowd is fundamentally aggressive contradicts the rational nature of crowds by ignoring the role of group conflict, as it is widely acknowledged that crowd behaviour is usually an inter-group phenomenon (Hogg and Vaughn, 2008:421). Early theorists also fail to account for the relationship between the individual and the social, which social psychology is primarily concerned with. Many crowds involve conflict between groups, for example police and rioters. Reicher’s (1984) study of riots in the St Paul area of Bristol found that aggression was targeted towards symbols of the state such as banks and the police; the riot can be seen as an anti-government protest, arising from the context of economic disadvantage and high levels of unemployment. Fundamentally, rioters were responding to a perceived threat to their community by the police, without this conflict it is highly probable that the riots would not have occurred. Historical research suggests that such conflict is integral to crowd violence; in an analysis of past riots nearly all confrontation was deemed to be the result of the intervention of official forces (Tilly, Tilly and Tilly, 1975 in Brehm and Kassim, 1996.)

Whilst inter-group conflict and individual and social identities influence crowd behaviour and prove that crowds are neither fundamentally uncivilised or aggressive, certain characteristics of both group behaviour and the physical nature of crowds may increase the likelihood of aggression arising. Research by Johnson et al (1977) suggests that crowds may come to more risky decision making as a group, than participants would individually. This “risky shift” phenomenon which is often applied to processes of group decision making, may therefore result in crowds having the increased tendency to pursue riskier behaviour, which may be anti-social or violent. The physical nature of crowds may also contribute to an increased tendency to become aggressive. Research by Freedman (1975) suggests that crowding leads to intensification of current feelings, therefore emotions of anger and aggression may be intensified, just as feelings of euphoria may be but the result can be far more destructive if intensified negative emotions are released. Additionally, larger groups have been associated with greater violence as Mullen’s (1986) research on newspaper accounts of lynchings of African Americans found that as the size of the mob relative to victims increased, the brutality of lynchings intensified (in Brehm and kassim:421.)

To conclude, crowds appear to be a feature of modern, industrialised society and increased awareness of crowd behaviour, in particular its dangers can be seen as a positive contribution to public safety. In the realm of social psychology, great progress has been made in understanding the complex nature of crowd behaviour. The relationship between the individual, the social context and the crowd has been found to be significant as crowd behaviour is now understood to be a complex social phenomenon. In this respect it may be questioned that “a mind of the crowd” exists, as such a phrase echoes early theories which suggest that crowd members are de-individualised into unquestioningly following crowd behaviour. Instead, individual and social identity may drive the actions of crowds, which is often influenced by the presence of out-groups. Whilst there are numerous high profile examples of violent crowds, the majority have been found to be non-violent, with pro-social crowd behaviour not uncommon. In light of this analysis, the opening claim that “the mind of the crowd is fundamentally aggressive” has been proven to be false on a number of levels, whilst it is acknowledged that certain physical aspects and group influences may increase the likelihood of aggressive outcomes within crowds.

Word count: 1588


Brehm, S. and Kassim, S. (1996) Social Psychology.

Drury J, Cocking C, Reicher S (2009) Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, Sep; 48: 487-506

Hogg, M.A. and Vaughan, G.M. (2008). Social Psychology (6th Edition.). Chapter 11 ‘Intergroup behaviour’. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

Le Bon, G. (1896). The Crowd: a Study of the popular mind. London: T. F. Unwin.

Reicher, S. (1987). Crowd behaviour as social action, in Turner, J.C. (Ed.), Rediscovering the Social Group. Erlbaum.

Johnson, M. Stemler, J and Hunter, D. (1977) Crowd Behaviour as a “Risky Shift”: A Laboratory Experiment. Sociometry. Vol. 70, No. 2, 183-187.

Zeitz K, Tan M and Zeitz, C. (2009): Crowd Behaviour at Mass Gatherings: A Literature Review. Prehospital Disast Med ;24(1):32–38.

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