Sociology

Forget What You Think You Know About Crowd Behavior

The rationality of crowds.

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"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:

Maybe not so madding after all.

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.
Fox

[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.

NEXT: Another Blow Against Cops Who Think They Have a Right Not to Be Recorded

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  1. That episode had one of my favorite lines: “I mean, what are the odds the boy would look in the vegetable crisper”

    1. “If I didn’t have this gun, the king of England could come in here any time he wants and start pushing you around. Is that what you want?” *Pushing her* “Huh? Is it?”

      1. “You said no guns at the breakfast table!”

        1. “Hey, yutz! Guns aren’t toys. They’re for family protection, hunting dangerous or delicious animals, and keeping the King of England out of your face.”

          1. “Well, it coulda been a real ugly situation, but I managed to shoot him in the spine. Yeah, I guess the next place he robs better have a ramp!”

            2nd best Simpsons episode ever.

            #1 being Lisa the Vegetarian.

            1. It’s just a little slimy, it’s still good! It’s still good!

              1. “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.”

              2. “It’s just a little airborne, it’s still good! It’s still good!”

            2. “Don’t kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about!”

            3. Homer’s BBBQ. The extra B is for BYOBB.

              That extra B is a typo.

          2. I’m pretty sure that episode’s depiction of NRA members as regular people primarily concerned with responsible gun use and safety would get it labeled hate speech by the SPLC if it were written today.

  2. …large groups mill around longer than small groups since it takes them more time to come up with a plan.

    Waiting for the government bureaucrat to show up.

  3. The result was an almost complete absence of disorder at England games during Euro 2004

    I take it that’s not accounting for Beckham’s hideous PK attempt that cost England their chance and sent Portugal to the semis?

    1. My browser’s universal translator must be on the fritz, because that was pure gibberish.

      1. Sudden, Hugh just politely called you a retard.

        Hugh, where were you last night? There were 6 different kinds of meat to be eaten.

        1. Hugh had a lot of dresses made out of women’s skin to sew. He’s somewhat behind right now.

          1. He’s somewhat behind right now.

            Ugh, a 3 month back order!? C’mon Hugh, bring back our girls already.

        2. I figured it was just an anti-soccer bias, although my extreme lack of social calibration makes it difficult to properly discern.

        3. There were 6 different kinds of meat to be eaten.

          I woke up at 4am with meat sweats, and I am in no way complaining about that.

          Good times. Thanks again!

          1. You’re welcome.

            I woke up with beer sweats.

            1. I woke up with the two girls that were waiting for the uber out front and eavesdropping

  4. If only this applied to Canucks fans.

    1. The article was talking about human behaviour. I don’t think that applies to Canadians.

      1. HEY. Not all of us are Canuckleheads.

  5. Likewise, say researchers, passengers have died in accidents because they just didn’t try to get out. Take the aircraft fire at Manchester airport

    That isn’t “likewise” at all! People usually come and go from office buildings as they please, especially “go”. On an airplane it’s government regulation and control (and lawyers up the wazoo).

    1. Yeah, it’s the difference between spontaneous order (rational people cooperating towards a desirable outcome) and top-down Schumertopia (bloodbath after bloodbath after bloodbath).

  6. I recall watching video of the immediate aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon.

    Less than 20 seconds after the 2nd bomb went off all kinds of people started rushing to where the bombs went off to try and help.

    Most of those you see on video who left the scene did so in a fairly orderly manner.

  7. “not only that mindless irrationality is rare within crowds, but also that co-operation and altruism are the norm when lives are at stake.”

    Fail. Altruism is irrational.
    /sarc

  8. I was at this anarchist’s picnic. http://www.bellalumafilms.com/nw76/

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