What Can Social Psychology tell us about how people behave in crowds

Social psychology, provides much information with regards to the interactions of human behaviour, and goes into depth to try to explain collective behaviour. According to Graumann and Moscovici (1986), ‘collective behaviour usually refers to large numbers of people who are in the same place at the same time, and who behave in a uniform manner that is volatile, highly emotional and in violation of social norms’. Therefore, to simplify this quotation further, it can be interpreted that individuals behaviour can be influenced and therefore changes when they become part (member) of a larger group/crowd.

It will be suggested that no one psychologist can truly explain crowd behaviour.

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Early research regarding collective behaviour was proposed by Le Bon. He developed his theory of crowds in the latter years of the nineteenth century by experiencing the Paris Commune of 1871 and also ‘reading accounts of the 1848 revolutions’. After reading about such events, Le Bon believes that being ‘part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation’ (1908) this consequently supported the idea put forward earlier by Graumann and Moscovici (1986)

Furthermore, Le Bon suggested three core ideas. Firstly, because an individual becomes part of a mass, they develop a sense of ‘anonymity’ and simultaneously lose their sense of ‘responsibility’. Secondly, crowds are susceptible to ideas and lastly, ‘suggestion’ which then causes ‘ancestral savergy’ -antisocial behaviour.

A prime example of these three factors being combined is with regards to the St.Pauls riot which took place in Bristol in 1980, on the black and white caf�.

Subsequently using information mentioned, Le Bon produced a simple model of the crowd to show how such violent behaviour is formed and occurs in crowds. Three important processes are involved. These are, as mentioned previously, anonymity, contagion/responsibility and suggestibility. It is suggested that all three processes must be present and operate at the same time, to produce such antisocial behaviour and, it seems that this idea is quite valid although more research needs to be done to follow up this idea to discover whether these three factors are important. A major weakness is that Le Bons theory has a bias perspective. All ideas relating to his theory of crowds viewed the group from outside. Therefore, had Le Bon been a member of the collective, his findings and conclusions may have been different. Additionally, it is felt that Le Bon provides a little too much emphasis on violence and possibly exaggerates the rate to which people are willing to be antisocial. Although people are susceptible to produce such bad behaviour due to conditions and influences, his theory does not truly consider individual differences and the fact that perhaps personality could play a role.

Overall though, Le Bon was the first theorist on this topic and is therefore somewhat outdated, although does still have some relevance to modern society.

Freud (1921) argued that the ‘crowd unlocks the unconscious’ and, that the super ego is a major component. However, a weakness is that the human superego is actually controlled by the crowd leader who implants the ideas. This notion partly supports the theory which suggests that suggestibility is an important process.

Social psychology research in general but particularly collective behaviour has promoted much research since Le Bon and there are now more modern explanations of such behaviour.

Research led to the theory of deindividuation which was produced as a result of a theory called ‘individuation’ by Jung. Which stated that individuation is ‘a process of differentiation, having for its goal the development of the individual personally’.

This then led Festinger to introduce the term ‘deindividuation’. Which is a process where being in a large group provides anonymity which is crucial in the approach and is responsible for the creation of a loss of responsibility and personal identity which results in weak social controls, causing us, as a person to become antisocial and somewhat violent.’ Put more simply, when you believe yourself to be in an anonymous state to others around you, you lose your personal identity which is suggested to trigger indecent behaviour. Therefore, it can be assumed that perhaps your personal identity is lost or, replaced by another.

It is essential here, to recognise that much research into deindividuation has been undertaken on the focal point of anonymity, a component of crowd behaviour. And, all researchers so far have acknowledged this point.

Festinger dressed participants in grey lab coats and sat them in a dim lit room (and did the opposite for control) and all had a discussion about their parents. Festinger found that those who were in the poorly lit room and in lab coats spoke more negatively about their parents than the control group. Therefore, this piece of research supports the idea that people, who see themselves as being anonymous, do lose their ‘personal identity’, which supports suggested explanations of crowd theory. Further supporting research is by Singer et al (65) who found that people who are less identifiable are more likely to use bad language when discussing erotic literature when dressed in a lab coat.

Although Festinger was the psychologist who introduced the idea of deindividuation, it was not him who provided the ruling research. Zimbardo (1982) performed a classic prison study, whose aim was to see how American students would behave in a simulated prison. He took two groups- guards and prisoners, and deindividuated them. It was found that the guards exercised extremely cruel behaviour to those playing the prisoner role. Therefore, this study supports that anonymity is crucial to ones behaviour in a crowd (or group in this case) but also that people conform to the role that they are portraying. Subsequently suggesting that roles have particular behaviours or stereotypes which a person adheres to. No researcher has so far considered this.

The prison study was very supportive and informative on behaviour, however it had significant ethical concerns. It is also important to note, that the results of the deindividuation that occurred were extremely significant to the environment which contributed to the degree of harm that was exerted by the participants.

An interesting study conducted by Diener (1967) showed a comparison between deindividuation and individuated behaviour. Nearly 1400 children were observed in America on Halloween night. One group of children were asked their name and address, whereas the other group were not. They were then encouraged to take a sweet. Results showed that those who were individuated took more than one sweet in 8% of cases. Those who were deindividuated by means of fancy dress, took more than one sweet in 80% of cases. This study therefore strongly supports through good comparison the extent to which anonymity and loss of personal responsibility does to a persons actions and, provides more depth into what social psychology tells us about crowd behaviour. However, Dieners study could suggest that self-awareness could be a key factor of how and why behaviour changes in crowds.

More social research by Zimbardo (1970) posed a problem with regards to the idea of anonymity/deindividuated behaviour increasing undesirable behaviour. An experiment was carried out using Belgian soldiers dressed in cloaks and found that the results were the reverse. The soldiers had a shorter shocking time than the ‘normal’ people did. It has been said that this is due to the fact that soldiers are already deindividuated as a member of the army. Therefore, when they put on the cloak, they suddenly become more aware and deindividuation is reduced.

Johnston and Downing (1979) carried out a similar experiment but instead participants (not soldiers) resembled either a nurse or klu klux Klan member. It was found that deindividuation failed to increase aggression because half wore a name badge.

These studies conclude that aggression and antisocial behaviour are not always to be expected, and also that ‘expectation may influence behaviour’. Therefore, the main implication of Zimbardos research is not wholly true. Being in a crowd, or group does not necessarily mean that a person will behave in a negative manner. In reason, it needs to be clarified as to whether being in a crowd implies loss of identity/self control. So far, experiments and research detailed have provided an ambiguous answer.

So far, Social psychology has told us that there are important factors regarding anonymity and expectations when in a crowd. It has been highlighted, that identity could be a key issue. Therefore, there is a need to identify and explain a little more on this area.

Turner and Killian (1957) developed the Emergent Norm Theory which suggests that ‘collective behaviour is regulated by norms that emerge from an initially norm less crowd.’ This proposes that crowds are not ‘ancestral savagery’ like Le Bon says but that crowds are norm governed. When a crowd comes together, there is no norm governing behaviour, but slowly, a norm surfaces and there is a need or pressure to conform to it in order to become an accepted member.

‘Thus, a person behaves as he does in the crowd because that behaviour is seen as appropriate or as required.’

However, Reicher (1982) suggests that when crowds are together, there is no need for a norm to be established because the crowd brings a set of norms with them.

Reichers’ idea of crowd behaviour suggests that ‘crowds are events where people from the same group, and thus with a common social identity, come together to achieve a goal.’ This is supported by the Social Identity Theory. This theory basically outlines that crowds form and share one identity for which they can assume the manner to behave in. This formed identity provides alleged ground rules for what behaviour the group/crowd regards as acceptable. In addition, it is acknowledged by Reicher (1982) that a crowd always involves more than one group and, that it is actually ‘an intergroup phenomenon’. In addition, Tajfel (1978) says that ‘in acting towards a member of another group, the individual considers himself and the other only in terms of their group membership and the attributes implied by that membership.’

It can be concluded, that there has been a significant amount of research completed with regards to crowd behaviour within social psychology. Key areas can be agreed to contain Le Bon, Deindividuation (Zimbardo), Emergent Norm Theory and Social Identity Theory. Each different psychologist and factor investigated has shone light on collective behaviour. All have had some influence, and have produced valid points, most of which have been questioned. Subsequently, these questions led to further research which attempted to fill in the gaps and simultaneously, try to provide an answer.

As a result, it can be safe to say that there are several valid proposals for crowd behaviour and that all must be combined together to provide greater scope.

Therefore, in brief answer to the question, social psychology highlights that people become somewhat deindividuated but the degree to this depends on the environment. In addition, it can be concluded there is a change in personal Identity whereby, the crowd conforms to group norms and group mind. I believe that there could be more research explored into this area to provide more concrete evidence.