Crowd psychology, also known as mob psychology, is a branch of social psychology. Social psychologists have developed several theories for explaining the ways in which the psychology of a crowd differs from and interacts with that of the individuals within it. Major theorists in crowd psychology include Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, Sigmund Freud, and Steve Reicher. This field relates to the behaviors and thought processes of both the individual crowd members and the crowd as an entity. Crowd behavior is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual and the impression of universality of behavior, both of which increase with crowd size.
In social psychology, Crowd psychology is an aspect of collective behavior. Ordinary people typically can gain direct power by acting collectively. Historically, because large groups of people have been able to effect dramatic and sudden social change, in a manner that bypasses established due process, they have also provoked controversy. Social scientists have developed several different theories for explaining crowdpsychology, and the ways in which the psychology of the crowd differs significantly from the psychology of those individuals within it. Carl Jung coined the notion of the Collective unconscious. Other major thinkers of crowd psychology include René Girard, Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Gabriel Tarde, Sigmund Freud, Elias Canetti, Steve Reicher and Julia Constintine. At a general level, crowd psychology is concerned with the behaviour and thought processes of individual crowd members and the crowd as a whole. Given the (particularly modern) prevalence of crowd events, and the potential safety issues associated with such large gatherings of people, the topic is receiving increasing attention from agencies responsible for crowd management and also from governments.
Theories of crowd psychology
Modern crowd psychology emerged in the wake of the World Exhibition of 1889 in Paris, commemorating the Centenary of the French Revolution. The revised view of the 1789 crowd events by psychologist and historian Hippolyte Taine was major source of inspiration. Two 1889 Paris conferences also played a role. On the one hand the first international conference on criminal anthropology (criminology), where mobs became a major theme. On the other hand the meeting leading to the founding of the (socialist) Second International Workingmen’s Association, leading to unprecedented worldwide strikes and demonstrations on Labor Day from the following year onwards – which scared the new bourgeois elites.
During the first half of the 1890s, therefore, there was a rapid succession of monographs on the subject. The first was a thesis by the aspiring Italian lawyer Scipio Sighele, La folla delinquente (1891). He was a student of Enrico Ferri and Cesare Lombroso. The second, unknown missing link was La psychologie des foules (1892) by the aspiring French physician Henri Fournial, a student of Alexandre Lacassagne. The third was an essay (1892) by the French provincial judge and early social psychologist Gabriel Tarde, later included in his collection L’opinion et la foule. These three then inspired a fourth monograph by French physician and popular science writer Gustave Le Bon, La Psychologie des foules (1895). It became an international bestseller, which influenced many subsequent political leaders.
The main idea of Sigmund Freud‘s crowd behavior theory is that people who are in a crowd act differently towards people from those who are thinking individually. The minds of the group would merge to form a way of thinking. Each member’s enthusiasm would be increased as a result, and one becomes less aware of the true nature of one’s actions.
Le Bon’s idea that crowds foster anonymity and sometimes generate emotion has become something of a cliché. Yet it has been contested by some critics, such as Clark McPhail who points out that some studies show that “the madding crowd” does not take on a life of its own, apart from the thoughts and intentions of members. Norris Johnson, after investigating a panic at a 1979 Who concert concluded that the crowd was composed of many small groups of people mostly trying to help each other. However, leaders ultimately associate themselves with a specific idea.
Theodor Adorno criticized the belief in a spontaneity of the masses: according to him, the masses were an artificial product of “administrated” modern life. The Ego of the bourgeois subject dissolved itself, giving way to the Id and the “de-psychologized” subject. Furthermore, the bond linking the masses to the leader through the spectacle, as fascism displayed in its public representations, is feigned:
“When the leaders become conscious of mass psychology and take it into their own hands, it ceases to exist in a certain sense. […] Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance. […] It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable. If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic.”
Edward Bernays (1891–1995), nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was considered the father of the field of public relations. Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the psychology of the subconscious. He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he felt was irrational and dangerous.
Deindividuation theory argues that in typical crowd situations the borders and distance between individuals tend to disappear, as they tend to merge into a larger whole. According to pioneer Gustave Le Bon, this resulted in ‘mental unity’. American social psychologist Leon Festinger and colleagues first elaborated the concept of deindividuation in 1952. It was further refined by American social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who spelled out in great detail why mental input, through input and output became blurred by such factors as anonymity, sensory overload, etcetera.
Convergence theory holds that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular individuals. Thus, crowds amount to a convergence of like-minded individuals. In other words, while contagion theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, convergence theory says the opposite: that people who wish to act in a certain way come together to form crowds.
An example of convergence theory states that there is no homogeneous activity within a repetitive practice, sometimes observed when an immigrant population becomes common in a previously homogeneous area, and members of the existing community (apparently spontaneously) band together to threaten those trying to move into their neighborhoods. In such cases, convergence theorists contend, the crowd itself does not generate racial hatred or violence; rather, the hostility has been simmering for some time among many local people. A crowd then arises from convergence of people who oppose the presence of these neighbors. Convergence theory claims that crowd behavior as such is not irrational; rather, people in crowds express existing beliefs and values so that the mob reaction is the rational product of widespread popular feeling.
Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian developed the emergent-norm theory of crowd dynamics. These researchers concede that social behavior is never entirely predictable, but neither are crowds as irrational. If similar interests may draw people together, distinctive patterns of behavior may emerge in the crowd itself. Crowds begin as collectivities, acting, and protest crowds – norms may be vague and changing as when, say, one person at a rock concert holds up a lit cigarette lighter to signal praise for the performers, and other follow suit. In short, people in crowds make their own rules as they go along.
Decision-making, then, plays a major role in crowd behavior, although casual observers of a crowd may not realize it. Crowd behavior reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds. Emergent-norm theory points out that people in a crowd take on different roles. Some step forward as leaders; others become lieutenants, rank-and-file followers, inactive bystanders or even opponents. Each Member in the crowd plays a significant role.