Friday, 21 October 2016

Southern Rail and the psychology of crowd safety


I was asked today to appear on BBC Radio to comment on a report from the Association of British Commuters which described the recent experiences of passengers on Southern Rail trains and platforms. These testimonies painted a picture of stress, anxiety and fear for many passengers. The passengers’ concerns seemed understandable. People did not feel safe on the trains and platforms.
Based on the research on the psychology of crowd safety, two factors that are important in enhancing or diminishing the sense of safety that people feel in a crowd: density and relationships of trust.
On density, we know that density of five people per square metre (5ppm2) and above is objectively dangerous. Any push in a crowd of this density can cause a shock wave and a fatal crush. And dense crowds have very poor front-to-back communication, meaning that those at the back of a crowd have no idea how dense and dangerous it is at the front. So those at the back of a densely-packed platform could accidentally push those at the front onto the rail without realising.
Yet our research has shown that, in many crowds of far greater density than 5ppm2, people report feeling safe. This is what we found in our study of pilgrims’ experiences in the Grand Mosque, Mecca, during Hajj. So what is the other factor that matters, that might be responsible for the feelings of anxiety and fear among Southern Rail passengers?
The other factor is a relationship of trust – specifically between the crowd and those managing the crowd, as our research on other kinds of stressful crowd events has shown. Commuters on trains rely on the company managing the trains and the stations. They rely on them:
·       To manage the numbers. When this isn’t done it undermines trust and confidence.
·       To have sufficient personnel available. This is one of the problems highlighted by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) report.
·       To ensure the personnel are sufficiently trained. One passenger comment in the ABC report is this: ‘on strike days, … more concern for me is that there never seem to be any safety-qualified staff either on the stations or on the trains’
·       To communicate reliably and regularly
If the company cannot be relied upon to do these things, the result is quite understandable passenger fear and anxiety.
Finally, the BBC asked me about the dangerous behaviour by some passengers. Crowds of people made ‘mad dashes’ across platforms to get to trains, sometimes risking their own and others’ safety. And there were repeated reports of fighting.
Anxiety and fear alone cannot account for these responses. When we looked at the behavioural responses of those commuters caught up in the London bombings of July 7th 2005, we found fear but we found almost none of these ‘antisocial’ responses. In both cases (bombing and Southern Rail today) there was ‘scarcity’ – either of safe passage or of trains running. But only in the case of Southern Rail today are these passengers put in the position of being individuals competing against other individuals. With a scarcity of trains, people defined as ‘customers’ compete, like people fighting over bargains in a sale. And with no reliable information from the companies, it is not surprising that people treat the next train as perhaps their last chance of getting home. Based on what we know about how common fate changes the boundaries of concern for people faced with disaster, perhaps the solution is collective identity and action as passengers (not ‘customers’) to change the current situation for the common good.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How the Brexit vote empowered xenophobes and racists

Social media users and news sources have reported a spate of racist and xenophobic incidents in the UK in the days immediately following the EU referendum result. These include anti-Polish graffiti, people being told ‘go back to your country’ in the street and on public transport, and damage to shops, restaurants, mosques and other Muslim targets. Hate crimes reported to the police have apparently increased by 57%.  
Some commentators have referred to two processes to explain this upsurge in racist and xenophobic attacks: empowerment and legitimization. Our research has shown that collective psychological empowerment is based on shared social identity. When people believe that others have the same identity as them, this increases their expectation that they will be supported in taking action consistent with that ingroup identity. Thus the greater the size of the ingroup, the greater the sense of support. The greater the match between self and ingroup identity, and the greater the perception of ingroup unity, the more ingroup members feel: that they act and speak for the ingroup; that they will be backed up and applauded if they take ingroup-consistent actions; and that others will join in with them if they take such actions. By the same logic, they will also believe that fellow ingroup members are also taking similar actions.
Most of the published research demonstrating this empowerment process has been carried out on collective action and protest. However, we can use the same framework to understand the sudden upsurge in racist and xenophobic incidents in the UK post-referendum.
First there is the content of the shared identity of the racist/xenophobe – who the ‘we’ is. In this case, the identity is ‘British’ (or perhaps ‘English’), which will be narrowly defined (e.g., ‘white’) and which will include opposition to ‘foreigners’ and perhaps also perceive the ingroup as a ‘victim’ of these ‘foreigners’.
One of the effects of the Brexit vote was to convey ‘what other people think’. There was a widely-held understanding that a vote for Brexit was a vote against foreigners (‘taking our country back’ in relation to both ‘foreign’ rule and migrants). Second, then, where the racist/xenophobe shares this perception of the vote for Brexit, s/he will perceive a match between own identity and the position of the ‘majority’. In short, s/he now believes that ‘everyone else’ (white British) is as racist as s/he is.
Third, the racist/xenophobe’s belief that the ‘majority’ now share identity with self means that ingroup boundaries have now become extended: the ingroup of racist/xenophobes is now perceived to be larger than before the referendum. Moreover, there may also be a false consensus effect, or illusion of homogeneity, because the binary ‘for-against Brexit/foreigners’ simplifies the possible range of opinions. This would enhance the sense of unity for the racist/xenophobe, within the ‘white British’ majority ingroup category.
Next, therefore, this larger and homogeneous (united) ingroup means greater expectations of ingroup support for action consistent with that identity. Finally, then, greater expectations of ingroup support means that action to express identity and its values are now more likely. Since that identity is defined in terms of hostility to ‘foreigners’, more hostile action against ‘foreigners’ is the result.
The notion of legitimization suggests that people changed their understanding of what counts as appropriate conduct. But in the present case, it is not clear that some people have changed towards now thinking that racist and xenophobic attacks are ok (noting also that there were of course racist incidents before the referendum). What seems more likely, perhaps, is that racist and xenophobic people have changed towards thinking that other people now think that racist and xenophobic attacks are ok. They have changed in their understandings of what other people see as normative or acceptable. In other words, again, they feel they have permission – support, even – to act in these ways.
In social psychology, collective empowerment (or, more often, group efficacy) and legitimacy have usually been conceptualized as separate and distinct dimensions. But, in political terms, they can be causally related. For example, a movement’s ability to organize and be effective is one of the ways that it gains political credibility.[1] The understanding that power and legitimacy are linked is also behind the anti-fascist strategy of preventing fascists from organizing and public speaking – because when an organization appears able to put its beliefs into practice it increases the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force.
So what is the solution? The research on collective empowerment suggests that those actions that realize the shared identity for participants are particularly rewarding. This point and the analysis above therefore suggests a number of points at which the cycle of empowerment of racist and xenophobes can be broken.
First, disabuse them of the illusion that their views are widely shared. Challenging them will undermine their belief that others now regard racism and xenophobia as legitimate. Indeed, doing nothing in response to hate crimes could be seen as endorsing them, or implying that such actions are now acceptable.
Second, prevent them mobilizing support by acting particularly against their coordinated activity.
Third, prevent their actions from having a tangible impact – prevent them from turning their subjective identity into objective reality - by negating and cancelling out their effects with both words and actions.
And fourth, actively disempower them by asserting collective identities antagonistic to theirs. For example, well-organized and -attended groups and activities based on international class solidarity help to defeat racism and xenophobia on the streets by making such solidarity more feasible and realistic than the racist vision.
This blogpost was produced collectively with the Crowds & Identities research group: Anne Templeton, Sanj Choudhury, Patricio Saavedra, Khalifah Alfadhli, Sara Vestergren, and Evangelos Ntontis.





[1] In line with this idea, a recent (unpublished) study we carried out on Chileans’ perceptions of the student movement found that the more that people saw the movement as having high efficacy the more likely they were to see collective action by the movement as legitimate.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Explaining involuntary influence: Beyond contagion

A recent article on the Brexit debate suggested that there is a fear among Governments that Brexit would lead to ‘referendum contagion’. The term ‘contagion’ here denotes not only the idea of behaviour spreading rapidly, but also that this spread is uncontainable and undesirable in some way. It is a term that seems to be ubiquitous today. But it appears perhaps most regularly in three particular contexts: explanations for the spread of emotion; accounts of stock market ‘panics’; and explanations for the spread of violence.

On the one hand, the concept of ‘contagion’ seems to do a good job in describing the fact that behaviours spread from person to person. It seems to be the only way to conceptualize the phenomena when we seek to explain how, as in 2011, riots began in London but then seemingly similar rioting then subsequently occurred in Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, apparently as a direct consequence of these first riots. The core idea of ‘contagion’ is that, particularly in crowds, mere exposure to the behaviour of others leads observers to behave in the same way. As well as being a popular cliché among journalists, ‘contagion’ is found to be a vital tool in academic accounts. In a recent Google Scholar search, we found 500 hits for 2015 alone, and very few of them referring to spreading disease. In research, ‘contagion’ is now used to explain everything from ‘basic’ responses such as smiling and yawning (where the mere act of witnessing someone yawn or smile can invoke the same response in another) to these complex phenomena we have mentioned, like the behaviour of financial markets and rioting. What is more, laboratory experiments on the ‘contagion’ of simple responses (such as yawning) serve to underpin the plausibility of ‘contagion’ accounts as applied to complex phenomena (such as rioting).

Despite this widespread acceptance, the ‘contagion’ account has major problems in explaining the spread of behaviours. In particular, there are boundaries to such spread. If men smile at a sexist joke, will feminists also smile in response to the men’s smiles? If people riot in one town, why is it that they also riot in some towns but not others? For example, in 2011, disturbances spread from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham but they did not spread to Sheffield, Glasgow and parts of Leeds.
The concept of ‘contagion’ cannot answer such questions. ‘Mere touch’ (literal or metaphorical) may be necessary, but it is not sufficient for influence. The notion of ‘contagion’ assumes that transmission is automatic. It does not take account of the social relations between the transmitter and receiver. The best it can do is simply re-describe, in a limited way, the fact of involuntary influence, rather than explain it. At worst, it pathologizes influence in crowds and elsewhere, by likening it to the action of a disease.
This month, we (Steve Reicher, Clifford Stott and I, along with research fellows Fergus Neville and Roger Ball) started work on an ESRC-funded project to test a new account of behavioural transmission, based on the social identity approach in social psychology. This approach suggests that influence processes are limited by group boundaries and group content: we are more influenced by ingroup members than by outgroup members, and we are more influenced by that which is consonant with rather than contradictory to group norms. The social identity approach is therefore ideally suited to explaining the social limits to influence, both for ‘basic’ phenomena and rioting.
Because the concept of ‘contagion’ has been employed across a range of settings, we will be using different research designs to address it and test an alternative. These include a series of experimental studies to examine generic processes, but also make use of a large body of secondary data to look at the specific case of the 2011 riots, where ‘contagion’ was one of the explanations mobilised to ‘explain’ the spread of behaviours.  We will use our findings to generate a wider debate about the nature of psychological transmission and the practicalities of addressing them.

This research is funded by the ESRC, Ref ES/N01068X/1