Crowd Psychology – Part 1


“It’s easier to be wrong with everyone than be right and alone” speaks volumes in itself about the recent cases of mob lynching and violence in Dadri, Daimabad, Jharkhand and the recent chaos in Kashmir. No individual was left unaffected at the plight of the victims.  The values, based on multicultural perspective of diversity, tolerance and plurality, that have kept India united for centuries were taken aback. With every passing minute, the debates and discussions on right to freedom and right to life grew intense. As the saying goes Law will take its own course and hope perpetrators and hate mongers would be brought to book later or sooner.

But, issues that need to be understood and looked upon from the psychological point of view is/are:

• Why do people behave in such a manner?
• Are they not fearful of the Consequences?
• What do they get by hurting others?
• Can anything be done?

In this scenario , social psychology comes to rescue and throws light on how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. Under it’s umbrella comes the explanation to psychology of crowds which relates to the behaviours and thought processes of both the individual crowd members and the crowd as an entity.

Now with this background, let us try to understand and analyse various aspects and dimensions of crowd.


In the field of crowd research there is no consensus on the definition of  crowd. The definitions evolve around the concept of a gathering (Challenger &Robinson, 2009) accompanied by a description of what binds the individuals in the crowd.

To give some examples  “A crowd is a temporary gathering of individuals who share a common focus of interest” (Forsyth, 2006). For Reicher (2001) on the other hand, a crowd is only a crowd when “individuals share a social identity”. Regardless of the differences in the core of these definitions, they all share the notion of a number of people in the same place at the same time, i.e. a gathering.

So for the sake of having a definition, let’s have one for the moment:

“A crowd is a sizeable gathering of people in a given area, who have come together for a specific purpose over a measurable period of time and who, despite being strangers or in an unfamiliar situation, feel united by a common identity and are therefore able to act in a coherent manner”.

Without going into much details about the origin of the concept of crowd or it’s similarity with contemporary times, let’s just flip through the history briefly.


It was believed that ‘The crowd’ is the instrument through which anarchy would replace order. Nowhere did that threat seem more real than in the French Third Republic, the birthplace of crowd psychology. It was then that the foundation of crowd psychology was laid, though in a very narrow narrative. In fact, the first debate in crowd psychology was actually between two criminologists, concerning how to determine “criminal responsibility” in the crowd and hence “who to arrest” !

When the founders of crowd science wrote about crowds it was primarily such working class action they had in mind. These founders were outsiders to the crowd, their presiding sentiment was that of fear and their principal purpose was less to understand than to repress the crowd.

The failure of early crowd psychology was that it bemoaned the threat without being able to harness the promise.

It was, perhaps, because he dealt with both sides of popular concerns that the work of Gustave le Bon, a French social psychologist, stood out from that of his contemporaries and that, of all of them, his work alone continues to have influence.

Considered to be the founder of crowd psychology, he explained why people do the things they do in groups. His book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, attributed crowd behaviour to the ‘collective racial unconscious’ of the mob overtaking individuals’ sense of self and personality and personal responsibility.

He further threw light on the mechanisms that predispose a crowd to action. He suggested that the psychological principles of anonymity, suggestibility and contagion transform an assembly into a “Psychological Crowd”.In the crowd the collective mind takes possession of the individual. As a consequence, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that a crowd member gets reduced to an inferior form of evolution: irrational, emotional and suggestible with no reasoning whatsoever. The individual loses self-control and become a puppet, possibly controlled by the crowd’s leader.

Mechanism of Crowd as per Le Bon:

Crowd pic

According to Le Bon, relieved of individual responsibility, individuals will behave in a more primal fashion. He asserts, ‘by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilization.’ In very basis terms, it is the diffusion of responsibility and the basic argument in support is that everyone was doing it so did I.

Sigmund Freud expanded the work of Le Bon and suggested that, in groups, individuals display certain behavioural characteristics that include:

•The lessening of a conscious personality.
•Emotions and unconscious drives displacing reason and rationality.
•The propensity to immediately carry out intentions as they develop.

Steve Reicher is another name who gave path breaking analysis of crowd in his Social Identity theorising. In his view the normative conduct of the crowd is an expression of the shared collective identity.

More so, C.P. Snow observed that, “ When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion”.

So, in the continuation of above theorizing, it is equally important to understand that crowd essentially does not have negative connotations attached to it. An antisocial leader can incite violent action, but an influential voice of non-violence in a crowd can lead to positive social energy.

Hence it is important to look at it with a different perspective as well, that is, whether factors like emotionality, suggestibility, anonymity, spontaneity and uniformity are so over powering that an individual ( otherwise rational and logical ) crosses the bar !

To Be Continued !



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