On November 1, 2009, thousands of Green Bay Packers fans flocked to Wisconsin’s Lambeau Field to watch the Packers face off against their longtime rivals the Minnesota Vikings. Despite the fact that the NFL had established a Code of Fan Conduct some fifteen months earlier, the crowd at that day’s game was anything but well behaved. By the end of the fourth quarter, thirteen people had been arrested for disorderly conduct or alcohol- or marijuana-related offenses, and forty-three had been ejected from the stadium altogether.
While those numbers were slightly higher than NFL averages—three arrests and twenty-five ejections per game across all thirty-two teams—the Packer fans’ rowdiness is anything but anomalous within the context of large-scale public gatherings. Need further evidence? Enter the San Francisco Giants, who, upon winning the World Series on November 1, 2010, for the first time since 1954, indirectly ignited riots, car tipping, public drunkenness, fires, stabbings, a shooting, and numerous arrests in the wake of their victory—most of which participants couldn’t wait to publicize via social-media applications such as Twitter and foursquare.
As throngs of people unite around a common cause—be it a professional sporting event, an arena-rock concert, or a funeral—their collective energy seems contagious, causing otherwise autonomous individuals to become caught up in the group’s overriding sentiments. And more often than not, what starts calmly quickly gives way to reckless, destructive, and sometimes even downright deadly behavior. What causes this trend toward mass hysteria?
It’s in Our Nature
A French sociologist named Gustave Le Bon is widely considered the first person to have investigated the crowd as a social phenomenon and explored its effect on people in depth. In his 1895 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Le Bon posited that members of a horde undergo a marked psychological change, symptoms of which include a narrowed focus and a sacrifice of individual identity to the “collective mind.” Further, Le Bon proposed, the anonymity that being part of a crowd engenders leads to a heightened (and often detrimental) sense of conviction and power in its participants.
Le Bon laid the foundation for what would later be known as contagion theory; a number of related ideas subsequently developed in the mid–twentieth century and beyond, chief among them sociologist Herbert Blumer’s notion of a “circular reaction” within crowds, and psychologist Ralph Turner and sociologist Lewis Killian’s emergent-norm theory.
Blumer suggested that during a circular reaction, which indicates a state of social unrest, people within a crowd experience increased sensitivity to one another that causes them to mimic the responses of others around them; these behavioral stimuli then reverberate throughout the group, intensifying continuously during an event, and ultimately cause impulsive, irrational actions.
Turner and Killian theorized that group events evoke a particular mood that in turn inspires behavior specific to that event to emerge. Because this behavior represents an isolated circumstance, rather than a social norm, participants in the event have no standard by which to define their own actions, and therefore look to the people around them to see and follow what everyone else is doing.
This follow-the-leader syndrome manifests itself in all kinds of ways; sometimes it translates into innocent group gestures, like chanting or doing “the wave” at sporting events, but other times—particularly when the crowd becomes focused on an “enemy” symbol, such as the opposing team, a political adversary, or the police—it leads to deviant and harmful actions, including looting, arson, and assault.
One of the most memorable examples of the extent to which the herd mentality can go terribly awry is the historic witch hunt that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late seventeenth century. In that Puritan community in 1692, seven young girls gradually began to exhibit bizarre behavior, including diving under furniture, contorting in pain, and complaining of fever. When the doctor called upon to examine the girls proposed supernatural possession as an explanation, his “diagnosis,” coupled with the town’s widespread belief in witches and in the Devil, opened the floodgates. In February, the “sick” girls began pointing fingers at specific women in Salem who they believed had afflicted them; arrest warrants were forthcoming, and by September, hundreds of the town’s residents had been convicted of witchcraft, and nineteen of them hanged.
Rambunctiousness, carelessness, and even outright violence might be deeply ingrained behaviors for humans in large groups, but being aware of these tendencies can help you protect yourself against harm. If you find yourself in a crowd crush and start to feel as if your environment is out of control, don’t panic (or, it goes without saying, start punching people or setting things on fire). Instead, remain calm and be aware of your surroundings. Know where all the accessible exits are, move to the periphery of the crowd, and have a predesignated meeting place outside where your companions can find you. Sure, you might miss the final minutes of the big game, but when your safety’s on the line, that’s a small price to pay.
Photo source: justinlorentz (cc)