What is Crowd Psychology?

Crowd psychology is the broad study of how individual behavior is impacted when large crowds group together. This field of social science has progressed from the early examination of negative social groupings to the study of crowds in more socially proactive or emergency-type of environments. Earlier examinations failed to attribute the more positive social impacts that groups can have on an individual’s behavior, and there is much more work to be done in this intriguing area of study.

Early Study of Crowd Behavior

Modern-day crowd science usually refers to the empowering “mob” mentality that seems to override an individual’s own perceptions and reality when large crowds flock together. This somewhat pessimistic take on crowding largely stems from the very first debates on the topic between top criminologists Scipio Sighele and Gabriel Tarde. These early discussions centered around how to determine accountability and criminal responsibility for crimes committed by large crowds.

Gustave Le Bon expanded on these ideas by arguing that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini gained power and strength by utilizing crowding psychology techniques. He pointed out the basic principle that became the core foundation of this theory: individuals tend to lose their sense of self and responsibility simply by being a part of “the crowd.” His writings suggest that by becoming a crowd member, an individual literally descends the ladder of civilized behavior and allows their primitive, emotional state to take over.

The Debate

It is imperative to understand the limitations of Le Bon’s harsh criticism towards crowding. Social movements and crowds are, in most cases, far from the unreasonable mobs depicted by such theories. While large gatherings, like sporting events, can create a somewhat barbaric atmosphere of irrational and spontaneous behavior, most crowds do not behave this way. Shcweingruber and Wohlstein published a highly regarded article in 2005 pointing out some of the major flaws in traditional crowding psychology concepts. They argue the claims that crowds are spontaneous, suggestible, irrational, destructive, emotional and unanimous are largely myths that are not supported by real-life examples. Despite being perpetuated by the majority of introductory sociology books, Schweingruber and Wohlstein found no empirical evidence for such ideas.

Real-World Examples

Crowd psychology can be witnessed in many real-word situations. One of the most interesting phenomena is the way in which crowds respond in emergency situations. According to traditional sociological theories, panicked groups of people should be irrational, selfish and in a primitive survival mode. Several studies have found the opposite is true. Shockingly, even those people evacuating from the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 filed out in an orderly way which saved countless lives. Another crowding phenomena critical to analyze is rioting. The US Riot Commission report of 1968 strongly sided with early crowding theories and claimed that rioters were “criminal types, overactive social deviants or riff-raff.” Historical analysis, however, shows that riots tend to happen in places with established and stable social networks rather than disorganized ones. Studying the American riots of the 1960s demonstrates that most rioters come from the most cohesive and respectable positions in society.

The impact of ‘group-think’ has been extremely intriguing for psychologists, sociologists and historians well-before the horrifying spread of the Nazi mentality during WWII. Since the social science’s early study, the negative effects of crowd mentality have been well-examined. There is still much to be learned about crowd psychology and the role it plays in initiating social progress, aiding in emergencies and peacefully defending their individual rights.

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