How Being in a Crowd Can Change Your Behavior

Ashley Brown
Jan 2 · 5 min read

The word “crowd” has a variety of definitions, for example, in regular everyday life people use it to describe a large mass of people. Although, in psychology, it is more commonly known to describe a group of people who are united by a common ideology, belief, or idea. This could range from angry citizens organizing a strike to a peaceful gathering about what they should do next to help their city. These crowds contain different behaviors that may not be present in its individuals.

According to Gustave Le Bon, a French polymath, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand, which the wind stirs up at will” he says that when someone is apart of a crowd, the individual will become less civilized even though they may have been respectable and civilized when they were outside of the crowd. Many people in the crowd will actually switch to behaving on instinct, instead of rationalizing out what they will do.

Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931)

“Characteristics from individuals on how they act in a crowd are produced by three main causes: anonymity, contagion, and suggestibility.” (Le Bon, 1895)

Anonymity

When an individual is under anonymity they tend to lose their instincts, fear of consequences, and moral responsibility, they will have the idea and feeling that they are invincible since no one truly knows them. This lets them act irrationally as if they would have no consequences, which explains why people become violent during revolts.

Contagion

When one individual may act irrationally it will tend to transfer to others to also act irrationally, that is where contagion is involved. Contagion makes it so that every act is contagious if one person starts yelling, then the whole crowd will start to yell as well, individuals will start to put the crowd’s interest above their own personal interests.

Suggestibility

After being in a crowd for a long period of time the individual tends to enter a hypnotic-like state, the individual is mesmerized by the leader of the crowd and when the leader realizes this he can influence the crowd and they will turn thoughts into acts. Consequently, that is why in Nazi Germany, the leader was able to influence an educated population into a vicious and genocidal one.

Throughout many years there have been multiple different theories about why crowds react in the ways that they do. In this article, we’ll explain some of them

Pre-Disposition Theory

The pre-disposition theory was created by Allport, Millar, and Dollard, they thought that when something in a crowd goes awry that it is because the individuals who are in the crowd are anti-social and that they have this violent behavior in them and always had.

The Emergent Norm Theory

The emergent norm theory had thought that individuals tend to react based on the people around them, their actions, or their words, such as the spreading of a rumor. For instance, in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, rumors about people being witches and bringing bad luck caused the execution of thousands of innocent people with little to no evidence.

Inter-Group Perspective

The inter-group perspective thought by Reicher and Potter stated that individuals will act differently depending on whether who is in the group or out of the group. The in-group is the one who shares all of the same ideas or beliefs, while the out-group may oppose the in-group’s ideas or beliefs, this will cause unrest for the in-group and may even cause them to lash out at the out-group.

The Model of Disorder

The model of the disorder by Waddington, Jones, and Critcher said that there are six different levels of disorder in a crowd, those being structural, political, cultural, contextual, situational, and interactional. They said that disorder is rarely premeditated and can be explainable, so it is somewhat predictable.

Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory by Turner, Oakes, Haslam, and McGartey said that collective behavior is only possible by the shared sense of identity. That everyone in the crowd is essentially similar, they each have the same type of characteristics as each other.

In one study in 2005, July 7th in London there was a series of three bombings on the underground train, approximately 56 people had died and 700 and up were injured. This study is helpful in understanding crowd behavior because when the bombings went off it had taken emergency vehicles awhile to reach all of the survivors, the survivors were left in the dark underground train tunnel and essentially had to wait until the emergency vehicles showed up. Later, officials had asked what people did when the emergency vehicles were not appearing and many reported that they saw someone being helped or that they helped someone themselves. Most individuals were among people that they may have never known before, yet they still helped, scientists interviewing the individuals were not sure why, but had come to the conclusion that it was because the individuals all felt like they shared the same identity as those around them. All of them were in the same situation and experienced the same thing, causing them to have the same identity and causing them to help more and more people. (Drury, Cocking and Reicher, 2009)

To conclude, we need to study and understand the behaviors of people in crowds and how it relates to the individuals as well. Despite the fact that there have been a copious amount of theories and ideas about crowd psychology, why people do the things that they do, or why people would place the benefit of the crowd above the benefit of themselves, it is still a topic which needs more research. As said by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau,

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

“We have a very imperfect knowledge of the human heart if we do not also examine it in crowds”

If you would like to read more on crowd psychology, I’d suggest you read Gustave Le Bon’s book The Crowd or read more on the theories mentioned in the article. I would love to have your feedback and tell me which theory do you agree with the most.

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Ashley Brown

Written by

Persist and resist. Medical student and aspiring writer for fiction and psychology

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Ashley Brown

Written by

Persist and resist. Medical student and aspiring writer for fiction and psychology

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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