Demonised for decades, crowds are often sources of enhanced wellbeing
Co-authored with Dr Richard Wolman
Humans have a biological drive to belong. We seek out social contact, not only because of the life functions it can fulfil, but also because it is inherently rewarding. These neurobiological mechanisms — built around opiate and oxytocin release in the brain — feel great, and make us want to socialise more. This process probably developed to foster social bonding for survival advantage — if our ancestors could bond and co-operate, they were more likely to stay alive.
These principles apply with one-to-one or small group contact, but they also occur at the larger scale: the crowd. Something occurs in crowds that does not happen when we are alone, or even in groups of just a few people. Observers have long recognised that there is something special about the crowd — they just couldn’t agree on what it was.
For much of the past 150 years, our views of crowds were polarised into two camps: crowds were either a terrible thing, or a wonderful thing.
Those 19th century philosophers and anthropologists who said crowds were bad were usually from the conservative elites. In France, for example — home to key proponents of this view such as Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde — crowds represented bloody revolution and threat. It’s easy to see how you might share this view, if you were from the educated aristocratic classes.
Many writers were quick to call crowds ‘mad’ and describe how the individual surrenders his or her identity to the group, its anonymity predisposing them to violent unrest. The term ‘herd’ was often used — Nietzsche saw the mob as animalistic, a step back in evolutionary terms. Scottish journalist Charles Mackay criticised the mob behaviour that accompanied some historical religious acts, like medieval witch-hunts.
Critics of crowds argued that when a person enters a crowd, they stop ‘thinking’ and start behaving in a mindless — usually aggressive — way. Some cities were even designed to make it harder for crowds to assemble, to try heading off this seemingly inevitable mob violence.
Not everyone agreed, however. Emile Durkheim — a socialist of Jewish heritage who did not see eye to eye with France’s conservatives — believed that crowds were a source of transcendent experience, which he called ‘collective effervescence’. This feeling was found in many religious rituals performed in groups, and had important functions for human wellbeing.
Others were able to see the ‘wisdom’ of crowds. Francis Galton — Darwin’s cousin and a fully paid-up member of the British elite — spotted that if a group pools its data (in his example, guessing the weight of an ox), it can arrive at a more accurate result than any one individual in the group could produce alone. Today, this argument is applied in support of political decentralisation and free market economics.
The real revolution in crowd analysis, however, came through a Polish social psychologist called Henri Tajfel. In the 80s, he proposed an idea — supported by experiments and observations — called Social Identity Theory (SIT). SIT predicts that people will act in accordance with a group’s norms when they identify with that group. According to Tajfel, an individual’s identity is not lost in a group, it simply changes.
Imagine the following scenario. An atheist goes to a church and feels completely alienated from the group and its norms (singing, prayer), because the ‘salient’ identity in that setting is religious belief. Put some atheists and some Christians — who all love jazz — together at a jazz festival, and watch them build relationships and enjoy one another’s company. In the second situation, ‘jazz lover’ is the salient identity.
The identities which are active for us at any given time affect our behaviour. And crowds are intense examples of how identity can be made active and salient. Sometimes — like in the London riots of 2011 — the salient identity of the crowd becomes one of violent protest, which can all too easily tip into criminal activity. But in these situations, we must ask the questions politicians often want to dodge: what caused people to feel part of that group and choose those actions? Something makes us identify with a crowd, and something about being in it makes us stay there.
When we identify with the group and feel part of a shared experience, the psychological benefits of being in a crowd are enormous. A huge number of studies shows improved mood, reduced loneliness, greater self-esteem and feelings of belonging when we are in a crowd. Feeling part of something that is bigger than yourself is a major source of wellbeing. These rewards draw people into crowds, keep them there, and make them want to return in the future.
When people identify with other group members, they are more likely to be kind to strangers in the group — this kind of altruism is known as ‘collective resilience’. There is even evidence it fosters improved physical health. Basically, it’s good for you.
Of course, there are costs attached to being in a group: some crowd activities can be expensive, uncomfortable, and lack clear purpose. Crowds sometimes do not respond to danger because decision-making responsibility is diffused, and stampedes can cause serious physical injury. These and other aspects of crowds lead some to experience panic attacks and develop phobias of crowds. But overall, empirical research consistently finds that the psychological benefits of being in a crowd outweigh the risks.
Why do these positive phenomena emerge from being in a big group?
When we are in a group, we share attention with others. You and I both bring our attention to the same thing — say, a concert or a sports match. We allocate greater cognitive resources (focussed attention and thought) to the activity in the presence of others, because there is a social component to it. This produces more intense emotional experiences. Emotions can be positive or negative (for example, if we all watch the same frightening or sad film) but when experienced together, these feelings are stronger.
More than this, when we’re in a group, we often start to move in time with others. Anthropologists call this ‘coordinated movement’ and suggest it evolved to help our ancestors with group activities like hunting. This ‘interpersonal synchrony’ can be deliberate — everyone clapping or chanting together, for instance — but it can also be unintentional. Physiological measurements show our levels of arousal (gauged by things such as heart rate) match others in the group — even when we might only be observing rather than directly participating in the same event.
The likely explanation for this is that when we identify with others, we can imagine more easily what they’re experiencing, we empathise with them, and achieve a state of congruent cognitive and emotional experience. These are likely to be the processes underlying Durkheim’s ‘collective effervescence’, described more than a century ago.
Modern life, however, often takes us away from each other. Work and play in isolation — perhaps due to professional demands, dense yet disconnected urban living, or obsession with smartphones and online activity — mean we can spend less time bonding with others.
There is strong evidence that when social contact is absent, we seek alternatives to it. We might see what our favourite celebrities are up to on Twitter or Instagram — good examples of ‘para-social’ contact; we’re not their friends, but in that moment, we are relating to them.
Another key alternative to real contact is ‘social surrogacy’. People immerse themselves in anything that offers a social world: novels, film, TV series (especially soap operas and dramas for their focus on relationships), online games, or radio chat shows. Even pets and food have been shown to provide comforting ‘bonding’ experiences.
People frequently seek out crowds online. There is some evidence that this produces positive effects on wellbeing. Using the internet and social media for engaging in group activity — particularly with a shared interest or ‘cause’ such as political or environmental activism, for example — leads to greater feelings of social support, belonging and life satisfaction. This kind of online activity can also lead to greater offline civic engagement — we tend to act on positive intentions expressed in a group online.
People are also increasingly turning to crowds for opinions on products and services — think TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes, Pinterest. We trust the judgement of many and the ‘social proof’ it offers, because we can identify with the reviewer who is a member of the public, like us. In recognition of this, more and more companies are using ‘crowd marketing’ techniques to reach their audience.
However, online group interaction is not the same as being in a face-to-face crowd. Being geographically separated and often not able to see the other person reduces the emotional intensity of the interaction, limits the opportunities for coordinated movement, and diminishes the opiate and oxytocin release of bonding experiences.
Online crowds may be ‘asynchronous’ — you post a message on a forum, come back an hour later and read the reply. This misses the ‘in-the-moment’ feeling of being part of a crowd — the collective effervescence of sharing attention and experience in real time.
Groups in cyberspace may often be more convenient, but the reduced ‘richness’ of social information — for example, body language, facial expression, voice tone — means that we are more likely to misunderstand one another in an online group, or misinterpret cues. No wonder, then, that over a two-year period, a large sample of people who simultaneously participated in online and offline groups rated the offline group as better for meeting their emotional needs.
The bottom line is that groups are usually good. Crowds provide a positive kind of human experience not accessible alone or even in small gatherings. Some of their benefits can be found in online crowds — but the best experiences of all are to be found out there, in the ‘real’ world, face to face.
For a bibliography of sources used to write this article, click here.