Far from the madding crowd

Photo by Flickr user aeminphilly. Click for sourceThe Economist has an excellent piece on crowd psychology and why group behaviour is essential in calming down street confrontations before they turn violent.

Crowds are often associated with senseless aggression, and perhaps the most widely quoted, and most colourful example, is from Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 book The Crowd.

He wrote that crowds showed several special characteristics such as “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides – which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution – in women, savages, and children, for instance”.

You can imagine how he went down at parties.

Nevertheless, this association between crowds and violence has remained a research focus for many years. Concepts such as deindividuation – a reduction in the feeling of personal identity and responsibility – are invoked to explain why ‘bad things’ supposedly happen when people congregate in groups. This also typically includes explaining why ‘bad things’ are allowed to happen without people intervening – the so-called bystander effect

The Economist article is interesting because it looks at research which seems to turn these assumptions on their head.

It discusses the work of psychologist Mark Levine, who studies crowd behaviour and has found that crowds actually act to reduce violence in many situations.

He has been analysing CCTV footage of incidents that control room operators thought might turn violent, not all of which did.

His first observation was that bystanders frequently intervene in incipient fights. The number of escalating gestures did not rise significantly as the size of the group increased, contrary to what the bystander effect would predict. Instead, it was the number of de-escalating gestures that grew. A bigger crowd, in other words, was more likely to suppress a fight.

Some incidents did end in violence, of course. To try to work out why, Dr Levine and his colleagues constructed probability trees to help them calculate the likelihood that a violent incident such as a punch being thrown would occur with each successive intervention by a bystander. Using these trees, they were generally able to identify a flashpoint at which the crowd determined which way the fight would go.

Judging the fight to begin with the aggressor’s first pointing gesture towards his target, the researchers found that the first intervention usually involved a bystander trying to calm the protagonist down. Next, another would advise the target not to respond. If a third intervention reinforced crowd solidarity, sending the same peaceful message, then a violent outcome became unlikely. But if it did not—if the third bystander vocally took sides, say—then violence was much more likely.

It’s a really eye-opening piece that’s well worth reading in full as it overturns both some common popular assumptions and some well-worn psychological clich√©s.

Link to Economist on ‘The kindness of crowds’.

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