Crowd Behavior and Psychology
Crowd Behavior is characterized by large numbers of people acting together heedless of established social rules and common understandings. Crowds differ dramatically from the organized, persistent groups that are the basis of conventional social action. This article will not discuss the behavior of crowds that assemble under orderly social conditions, but rather the behavior of riotous, or lawless, crowds.
Riotous crowds are typically spontaneous in origin. Except for the tenuous and shifting distinction between leaders and followers, they develop no structure or division of labor, and they tend to break up in a matter of hours or days. Hostile in their attitudes and acts, riotous crowds result from long-term social conflicts with which the larger society has been unable or unwilling to deal. Examples of such collective protests range from prison riots and student revolts to race riots and revolutionary mobs.
Despite their lack of organization and their heterogeneous membership, crowds exhibit a high degree of psychological unity, which is the basis of their ability to act as a unit. The French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, in his work The Crowd (1895), was the first to emphasize the impact of the crowd on the minds and behavior of its members. Members of a crowd typically experience a loss of self-consciousness and critical ability, a narrowing of their focus of attention, and a correlative heightened sense of power and conviction. Caught up in a common mood and oriented to some unambiguous "enemy" symbol, such as the police or a hated minority, crowd participants often engage in acts that would be taboo in conventional settings. Their behavior ranges from shouting obscenities to looting, vandalism, arson, assault, and lynching.
Explanations for such behavior include Freudian concepts of regression to a state of "primitive sympathy," the release of unconscious inhibited impulses, and the substitution of a group ideal symbolized by the leader for the individual's ego ideal. The operation of general psychological processes such as contagion and suggestibility is also believed to contribute to crowd behavior.
Stages and Control
The spontaneous and ephemeral nature of crowds has forced most scientific studies to depend on after-the-fact reports and the construction of "natural histories" of crowd behavior. These studies show that crowd activities involve four developmental stages: the occurrence of an exciting event that serves to mobilize people away from their ordinary routines; the physical and psychological milling of people, who became involved in a highly emotional circular type of interaction that serves to disseminate and intensify a common mood; polarization, or the development of a common focus on some unambiguous negative symbol; and the break, or flow of the crowd into overt action toward the symbol.
Control of crowds usually takes the form of a prompt show of force to disperse the members as they are gathering. Control becomes extremely difficult, however, if people have begun to riot in various places at the same time. In such instances, control is directed toward containing mobs and neutralizing the leaders by arrest.