Forget What You Think You Know About Crowd Behavior

The rationality of crowds.


"There's nothing like a riot to bring out the amateur psychologist in all of us," Michael Bond writes in Aeon. He's referring to the idea that people lose their reason, even their individual identities, in a crowd—a notion that thrives in punditry and pop culture even as sociologists and psychologists keep giving us reasons to believe it isn't true. Reviewing the research, Bond makes the case "not only that mindless irrationality is rare within crowds, but also that co-operation and altruism are the norm when lives are at stake."

At one point, Bond goes further than Reason's oft-made point that crowds during disasters generally stay calm and do not panic, arguing that crowds can be too calm:

When the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers in New York on 11 September 2001, most of those inside procrastinated rather than heading for the nearest exit. Even those who managed to escape waited an average of six minutes before moving to the stairs. Some hung around for half an hour, awaiting more information, collecting things to take with them, going to the bathroom, finishing emails, or making phone calls.

Likewise, say researchers, passengers have died in accidents because they just didn't try to get out. Take the aircraft fire at Manchester airport in the UK on 22 August 1985, when 55 people died because they stayed in their seats amid the flames. John Leach, who studies disaster psychology at the University of Oslo, says a shared state of bewilderment might be to blame. Contrary to popular belief that crowds always panic in emergencies, large groups mill around longer than small groups since it takes them more time to come up with a plan.

And in a piece of good news, some officials—not all, alas—are starting to take this social science into account when they try to police crowds:

This picture is here to illustrate the concept "soccer riot." Enjoy.

[Clifford] Stott and his collaborators presented their research to the Portuguese Public Security Police (PSP) before the European football championships, scheduled for Portugal for the first time in 2004. They advised the PSP to drop the riot-squad tactics used at most previous tournaments in favour of a lower-profile, firm-but-friendly approach. The Portuguese were receptive. They developed a training programme to ensure that all PSP officers understood the theory and how to translate it into non-confrontational policing. The result was an almost complete absence of disorder at England games during Euro 2004.

Today, the social identity model of crowd behaviour is the framework by which all Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) matches in Europe are policed—though in Russia and in eastern Europe it is still only sporadically applied.

Read the rest here.

Bonus link: This isn't the first time we've noted Bond's writing on this subject.