“In a crowd … a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.” Gustave Le Bon’s 19th-century depiction of the madness of mobs may have been shaped by the French Revolution, yet it is still the prevailing view of crowd behavior today. Most of us seem convinced that crowds inhabit a psychological shadow land of primitive urges and unrestraint, where individuals are stripped of their identity and led unthinking to violent or irrational acts.
Such notions are outdated and counter to the modern scientific understanding of crowd behavior. Studies from social psychology show that the internal dynamic of a large gathering is very different from how it looks from the outside. In multiple analyses of soccer matches, public demonstrations, festivals, and riots over the past three decades, the British academics Stephen Reicher, Clifford Stott, and John Drury have found that individuals in crowds do not abandon their rationality or surrender their identity to a mob mentality. They do not lose their minds. They do, however, become highly sensitive to what those around them are doing, and become strongly cooperative as a result.
This should resonate with anyone who has joined a protest march, flash mob, festival, parade, or the like. Contrary to the popular perception, crowds are highly supportive, altruistic, friendly, and often fun places to be. “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of [his] fear of being touched,” noted the Bulgarian intellectual Elias Canetti in 1960 in a thesis that foreshadowed the modern science of crowd dynamics. “All are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself.”
Altruism and solidarity are not rare; they appear to be the default behavior in crowds, as I discovered while writing my book The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do. Recently, Reicher and others showed that this positive experience could actually improve people’s health and sense of well-being. For the past eight years, they have been studying the Magh Mela religious festival in northern India, which attracts millions of Hindu devotees every January and February. Through surveys and behavioral studies, they have found that participants report far less anxiety and fewer physical ailments after the event than before, an effect that lasts for weeks. Reicher concluded: “By all the tenets of conventional wisdom, the Mela shouldn't work. It is crowded, noisy, and unsanitary. Yet the event is harmonious and people are serene.”
Positive crowd experiences are worth celebrating because so often when we unexpectedly find ourselves communing with a bunch of strangers, the circumstances are hardly appetizing—a train during rush hour, for example, or an unmoving line outside a store. One of the aims of the New York City–based prank collective Improv Everywhere is to make shared experiences fun, which it does by causing “scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” Since August 2001, it has staged more than 100 of these impromptu street shows, including a fake U2 concert on a New York rooftop, a mass beach invasion by hundreds of actors dressed in black tie and ball gowns, and the “no pants subway ride” held every year one midwinter day in 60 cities around the world. The videos of these stunts show that most onlookers who witness them become warmly conspiratorial in their astonishment, just as the organizers intend.
Occasionally, the solidarity of crowds can change the course of history. The Egyptian revolution of late January and early February 2011 was a stunning example of cooperative power (even though its achievements have partly been squandered). What’s more, those who gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the fall of Hosni Mubarak had the time of their lives. One retired businessman who traveled from Alexandria, Egypt, to join the protesters told me: “I found something lovely. There were all kinds of people. From universities, secondary schools, preparatory schools. Homeless people. People from every religion. All divisions disappeared. Everyone had one purpose. I was really crying, for this was the first time I saw the Egyptian people unafraid of anything.”
Crowds are dynamic. They are adaptable. But perhaps their most important and least appreciated feature is that they are a pathway to understanding our social selves. “The more you study crowds, the more you get at the basic processes of human sociality,” says Reicher. “The collective is so important in forming our everyday identities, our everyday understanding of ourselves, and also in changing them.”