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When Do Crowds Become Dangerous?

The impact of group membership on behavior.

Key points

  • In some scenarios, the perception of individual crowd members can be positive and prosocial.
  • There is a link between crowd identification and prosocial behavior such as coordination, courtesy, and assistance.
  • Feeling “social identification” with a crowd causes people to feel safe and trust other crowd members to help in case of an emergency.

Many of us grew up with crowds. From the beach to the ballgame, to the high school football bleachers, we spent at least part of our time with other people. Sometimes thousands of them at once.

And for the most part, what fun! Shared energy is contagious. Just as a “wave” sweeps through a stadium, so too does the enthusiasm. When it comes to collective excitement, the more the merrier. But as we have seen through devasting tragedy at overcrowded events, there can be too much of a good thing.

Image by Pexels on Pixabay
Source: Image by Pexels on Pixabay

Collective Resilience and Crowd Membership

We are familiar with the concept of safety in numbers. Can there be danger in numbers too? Experience says yes. Organizations like the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) promote guidelines to assist with crowd management,[i] emphasizing the importance of proactive safety planning to reduce dangerous conditions caused by overcrowding, and methods of handling massive crowd behavior to avert disaster.

But researchers have determined that in some scenarios, the perception of individual crowd members can be positive and prosocial, and crowd behavior can be helpful rather than hazardous. Apparently, the difference depends on crowd membership.

John Drury et al. (2015) in two studies of the same outdoor music event, examined the impact of crowd membership on crowd safety,[ii] examining the protective value of the psychological membership of crowds during potentially dangerous events. They note that in simulated evacuation studies, social identification within a crowd can actually increase help and reduce pushing—which is critically important given the ways in which people sustain injury within a crowd crush. They also note an established link between crowd identification and prosocial behavior such as coordination, courtesy, and assistance. They sought to extend existing research to a dangerous crowd event.

Perception of Danger Is Personal

Drury et al. studied observations and behavior from the perspective of both attendees and safety professionals at the “Big Beach Boutique II” outdoor music event, headlined by DJ Fatboy Slim. The size of the crowd was unexpected and overwhelmed available emergency services, creating a perception of the event as a “near disaster.”

Yet in both of their studies, among other findings, Drury et al. found that crowd members reported feeling safe despite the perception of danger held by others, and recognized the crowd’s ability to reduce risk and enhance safety by means of what they term psychological unity. Attendees reported that “social identification” with the crowd caused them to feel safe and trust other crowd members to help in case of an emergency.

Competent Crowd Control

Crowds are often managed through strategic safety strategies. Yet competent crowd control should consider the dynamic created by authorities and security officials because crowd members are influenced by the way they are treated. In light of their observations on the role of social identification, Drury et al. note that crowd safety managers should consider how their policies could improve or undermine shared identity. They give the example of how language used to address a crowd can impact behavior depending on whether it is divisive or inclusive. They suggest that considering these issues against a backdrop of both safety and social psychology should be a part of a comprehensive crowd safety plan.

Crowds are part of shared collective experience, which, when managed appropriately, can be prosocial and positively charged. Working together, event organizers, authority figures, and attendees can cultivate a safe, prosocial atmosphere of enjoyment and positive communication.

References

[i] https://www.oshaeducationcenter.com/articles/crowd-management-safety/.

[ii] Drury, John, David Novelli, and Clifford Stott. 2015. “Managing to Avert Disaster: Explaining Collective Resilience at an Outdoor Music Event.” European Journal of Social Psychology 45 (4): 533–47. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2108.

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