Crowd behavior: one understanding does not describe all

Last night, hundreds of Penn State students took to the streets to support Joe Paterno after he was fired over the child sex abuse scandal. The crowd turned ugly as the night went on.

Many will point to this as another example of “dangerous mob mentality”.

The magazine Intelligent Life, in its Nov/Dec issue, just looked closely at crowd mentality in a thoughtful article by Ian Leslie:

Crowds, we are often told, are dumb. They obliterate reason, sentience and accountability, turning individuals into helpless copycats. Commentators on the riots offered different explanations but most agreed that crowd psychology was part of the problem. “The dominant trait of the crowd is to reduce its myriad individuals to a single, dysfunctional persona,” wrote the novelist Will Self in the New Statesman. “The crowd is stupider than the averaging of its component minds.” The violence was said to have spread like a “contagion” through the crowd, facilitated by social media. For those who wanted to sound scientific, the term to drop was “deindividuation”: the loss of identity and moral responsibility that can occur in a group.

The riot at Penn State seems to fit this description of crowd mentality. Certainly, this particular crowd was more concerned with the perceived “tragedy” to their football program and tradition than about the real tragedy of the children who were sexually abused at Penn State.

The article (which was written before last night’s event), quickly reminded us that the power of the crowd does not necessarily lead people to the worst:

Earlier this year, the world watched a crowd bring down an autocratic government, by the simple act of coming together in one place, day after day, night after night. Egyptian protesters created a micro-society in Tahrir Square, organising garbage collection, defending themselves when they needed to, but otherwise ensuring the protest remained peaceful. As well as courage, this took intelligence, discipline and restraint. Few international observers accused the crowd in Tahrir Square of being dysfunctional, or of turning its members into animals. The Tahrir protesters also used social media, but rather than calling for a ban, as some in Britain did after the riots, people wrote eulogies to the liberating potential of Twitter. It seems that not all crowds are bad. But when bad things happen, the crowd gets the blame.

The article goes on to cover a history of looking at crowds, both positively and negatively.

John Drury, a psychologist at Sussex university who studies crowd behaviour, believes that the idea that crowds induce irrational behaviour and erase individuality just isn’t supported by the evidence. First, most crowds aren’t violent. The crowd in the shopping mall or at a music festival is usually calm and ordered. Even crowds that include conflicting groups, as at football matches, are more likely to be peaceful than not. Second, even when crowds do turn violent, they aren’t necessarily irrational. In the 18th century England was afflicted by food riots. If ever there was an atavistic reason to riot, that was surely it. But the historian E.P. Thompson showed that the riots took place not when food was at its most scarce but when people saw merchants selling grain at a steep profit; the rioters were motivated by a rational sense of injustice rather than the “animal” drive of hunger.

Leslie concludes that, “Crowds are as likely to bring out the best in us as the worst.”

What are your thoughts?

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