Saturday, 12 November 2011

Collective joy and the power of the crowd

A social psychological perspective on
Melanie Manchot’s exhibition ‘Gathering’
Fabrica gallery, Brighton, 8 October - 27 November 2011

Psychology has much to say about crowds, their power, and the strong emotions that arise from participation in them. This article describes recent research that addresses the themes on display in Melanie Manchot’s two video installations, ‘Celebration (Cyprus Street)’ and ‘Walk (Square)’.

Coming together
Celebration (Cyprus Street) is inspired by the tradition of street parties in London’s East End and was developed over a period of six months with the residents of Cyprus Street. It was filmed as a single continuous event, through the technique of tracking through the streets and the crowds. The participants could be described as diverse; but they are also together, as one, and it is obvious that they are present on the street to be with one another and that this is a joyful experience.

The film draws our attention to an apparent paradox of everyday experience. On the one hand, we seek out and enjoy crowds. When we celebrate we want to do so with others. We enjoy festivals, music and sports events when there is an atmosphere that only a big crowd can provide. But we also find some crowding aversive. We value our ‘personal space’. Recent research has addressed this apparent paradox. (1) This research suggests that, in order to understand why being in a crowd can produce such varied reactions in the same person, we need to conceptualize the self as multiple and variable, based on our various group memberships. The same degree of density or proximity is experienced positively or negatively depending upon which of our group identities is salient.

This argument can be illustrated with a recent experimental study.(2) Participants were each invited to pull up a chair to wherever they felt most comfortable, in anticipation of discussion with a stranger. Prior to this, they had been given a bogus ‘test’ of their ‘communication styles’. They were told either that the stranger was of the same ‘communication style’ as them or a different style. In fact the test and hence the two ‘groups’ were meaningless. But the participants didn’t know this, and reliably positioned the chair closer to the expected ‘in-group’ member than the ‘out-group’ member. This result suggests that our enjoyment (or dislike) of closeness with others, whether interpersonally or in a crowd, is shaped by whichever of our various identities is salient, rather than by a fixed ‘personal space’ boundary.

The effect shown in this experiment has been replicated with a range of other measures,(3) including self-reported preferences, negative and positive emotions, and even expressions of disgust: people report less disgust for exactly the same body odour when it is categorized as ‘us’ than when it is ‘them’!

Studies of actual crowds provide some real-world validation for this analysis. In November 2007, a march and rally was organized by UNISON, the public sector workers’ union, to protest against the then government’s attempts to privatize the NHS. We surveyed over 100 demonstrators, and found that those who identified most with the crowd sought a more central (i.e., more crowded) physical location, and hence closer proximity, to their fellow crowd members. In addition, immersion in the crowd was associated with collective joy. Specifically, those who identified most with the crowd reported a more positive experience, in part due to being in close physical proximity to their fellow crowd members.(4)

Taken together therefore, the recent research says something about why we gather together with others (because they identify in the same way that we do), and why it feels good when we are in a crowd with these others.(5) But when we come together as a crowd, we often move and act together. What are the psychological effects of such collective coordination?

Acting together
In Melanie Manchot’s video installation ‘Walk (Square)’, 1000 school children are shown moving in lines toward a city square, where they merge to become part of a huge choreographed crowd. They then move together, synchronizing their walking to form patterns that change, dissolve and re-form.

Walk (Square) is the result of an event constructed by Manchot but inspired by real situations involving walking as a form of expression: processions, parades, pilgrimages and protest marches, such as those in the recent wave of mass demonstrations from the UK to the Middle East.

If the striking choreography leads the viewer to see the performers as a single entity, it is possible that the performers themselves may do the same, for this is what recent research in social psychology has found. In the NHS demonstration study described above, we found that participants’ sense of being psychologically part of the crowd – their social identity – increased through participation in the event. Collective joy also increased over the course of the event, and was partly due to this shared social identity.

Our explanation for these results was that physical co-action in a group or crowd can dissolve the psychological boundary between individual and collective, while intensifying our positive emotional responses. But a field study like this cannot rule out the possibility that some other factor was responsible (such as passing of time, or communication, or changing relations with outside groups).

A follow-up study was carried out in the psychology laboratory, which enabled us to control all the conditions and so identify any causal relations, rather than simply infer them as in the demonstration study.(6) Participants arranged at close physical proximity in small groups were asked to learn clapping patterns of the type heard in football crowds. They performed the patterns in the group, either in synchrony or individually. As predicted, only participants who synchronized their movement came to see themselves as part of their group and experienced increased positive emotion.

These studies therefore show that moving together as one in time can serve to construct a collective identity. This is why rallies and marches are important in building social movements. It is no coincidence that Melanie Manchot’s two works are inspired not only by mass pilgrimages, processions, and parades, but also by recent mass demonstrations across both the Arab world and the UK.

A marching crowd is not only expressive, and therefore rich in meanings and symbols, but is also purposive. That purpose may be social change. Of course, most crowds do not aim to bring about social change. Many crowds in fact only exist to reproduce or validate the status quo – for example through religious ritual or national ceremony. But social change very often involves crowds.(7) Even crowd events that are supposed to have a cathartic function may also include a rebellious undertone, threatening to the status quo. Early carnivals had this dual quality;(8) and riots are often described as having a ‘carnival atmosphere’, by both participants and those who observe them.(9)

Crowds and power therefore have a long association. Recent research has examined the psychology of power-change – empowerment – in people’s experience of crowd events. Studies of riots, anti-capitalist demonstrations, anti-roads direct actions, Reclaim the Streets parties, anti-war marches, as well as numerous experimental simulations, have each shown the same pattern. We feel more able to take collective actions that we define as legitimate, yet which may not be permitted by others outside the crowd (such as the authorities and police), when we perceive that others in the crowd support us in our aims and action.(10)

Comparative studies of protest movements add that a sense of collective agency can be both cause and consequence of such collective action.(11) In order to act, we need to believe we are capable of such action. But, through our action and its impact on the world, we authenticate and confirm our own collective agency; the material results of our collective actions stand as evidence of the power of our collective identities.

Finally, research on activists’ experiences shows that collective actions that shift or challenge existing power relations feel joyful, exhilarating and even euphoric. (12) They feel good; and they may even be good for us, since the sense of agency and social support associated with collective action are established predictors of wellbeing.(13)

Melanie Manchot’s two works Celebration (Cyprus Street)’ and ‘Walk (Square)’ are about the relationship between individual and crowd, about our collective identities, and about how we behave in public space. A central message is that, through its action, the crowd can both express and construct our sense of self. Recent research in social psychology suggests that the power of the crowd – the collective support, collective agency and collective joy it affords – comes not from a loss of self, but from the augmentation of the self. To paraphrase John Turner, a founder of the social identity approach in group psychology, the psychological crowd ‘is precisely the adaptive mechanism that frees human beings from the restrictions of, and allows them to be more than just, individual persons’ (Turner, 1987, p. 67).(14)

John Drury and David Novelli

This article was commissioned by Fabrica and part funded by the European Union Two Seas Programme. It extends work that the gallery has carried out since 2009 linking artists’ perspectives with current scientific research at leading Universities in the UK.

Dr John Drury is senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Sussex. His research interests include crowd empowerment, solidarity in mass emergencies, and positive experiences of ‘crowding’. His research includes studies of anti-poll tax riots and anti-roads direct action and survivor responses to the London bombings. He has just edited, with Dr Clifford Stott, a special issue of the journal Contemporary Social Science on the topic of crowds. He is currently supervising research projects on the Hajj to Mecca, collective action and wellbeing, and crowd communication by the emergency services.

Dr David Novelli is a social psychologist at the University of Sussex, specialising in crowds. His research focuses on how social identities and group memberships influence the ways in which we experience being in crowds, and how acting together in crowds can affect positive emotions and feelings of solidarity. This year David was awarded the annual prize for the country’s most outstanding doctoral thesis by the British Psychological Society. He is currently looking at how our (positive and negative) experiences at large-scale music events can be shaped by assumptions about crowds held by those who organize and manage such events.


1.        Novelli, D. (2010). The social psychology of spatiality and crowding. Unpublished DPhil thesis. University of Sussex. Available online at,_David_Lee.pdf
2.       Novelli, D., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2010). Come together: Two studies concerning the impact of group relations on ‘personal space’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 223–236.
3.      Novelli, D. (2010) op. cit.
4.       Novelli, D., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2011). The relationship between psychological and physical group processes and their impact on the experience of crowding: Evidence from a field study. Unpublished manuscript. University of Sussex.
5.        Novelli, D. (2010) op. cit.
6.       Novelli, D., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2011). Synchronized movement as a cause of social identity and positive emotion. Unpublished manuscript. University of Sussex.
7.       Ackerman, P., & Kruegler, C. (1994). Strategic nonviolent conflict: The dynamics of people power in the twentieth century. Westport, CT: Praeger.
8.       Davis, N. Z. (1971). The reasons of misrule: Youth groups and charivaris in sixteenth-century France. Past and Present, 50, 41-75.
9.       Reicher, S. & Potter, J. (1985). Psychological theory as intergroup perspective: A comparative analysis of ‘scientific’ and ‘lay’ accounts of crowd events. Human Relations, 38, 167-189.
10.   Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change: Researching crowds and power. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 707-725.
11.   Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2005). Explaining enduring empowerment: A comparative study of collective action and psychological outcomes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 35-58
12.   Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328
  1.   Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (2006). Stressing the group: Social identity and the unfolding dynamics of responses to stress. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1037-1052.
  2.  Turner, J. (1987). A self-categorisation theory. In Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D. & Wetherell, M. S., Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory (pp. 42-67). Oxford: Blackwell.


Melanie Manchot's 2010 film Celebration (Cyprus Street) is a portrait of an East End neighbourhood, for which Manchot worked closely with local residents to create a street party, which she filmed.  Her more recent work Walk (Square) invites young participants to walk together and undertake basic choreographed movements. Celebration (Cyprus Street) was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, and Walk (Square) by Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg; both were exhibited at Fabrica gallery in Brighton, in October / November 2011. The exhibition ran at the same time as White Night, an event that invited local residents to take part in cultural activity throughout the night and in so doing created a new kind of social space which connected the city in a new way. 

Manchot described the focus of these works for photography publication Vignette in October 2011: “Both Celebration (Cyprus Street) and Walk (Square) investigate a position between individual and collective experience, and aim to do so through group portraiture.  In these works I set up an event with participants who are, on the whole, strangers to me and to each other, and who come together through the processes of the work.  The notion of ‘event’ is central to these works as it is the event, the proposition of a performative situation that the participants engage with – and that they then fill with their action.  

Both works consciously chart a space – and a tension – between choreography and documentation, between construction and chaos.  And in many ways this applies to my practice in general, this interest in setting up situations, constructing a scenario, which then develops its very own dynamic, where the people then enact their motivations.

Celebration (Cyprus Street) and Walk (Square) are both based on real events, ‘real life’ so to speak: in one case on historic street parties and the social function they embodied and the other on the recent surge of demonstrations, marches, protests both in the UK and around the world.  But rather than being political as such, in the case of both works it is the making of art, of a moving image project, that brings people onto the streets.  And public space, the streets and squares we share as social space are another theme that runs through these works as well as through much of my practice”

Celebration (Cyprus Street) was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and supported by Arts Council England. Funded by Film London and the UK Film Council Digital Archive Film Fund and supported by the National Lottery.
Walk (Square) was commissioned by Deichtorhallen and Kulturforum 21, Hamburg for the exhibition Wunder. Walk (Square) received additional funding from Film and Video Umbrella. The activities connected to the exhibition are also supported by Brighton & Hove Council, the IRIS Contemporary Art Network and Interreg, a European Union funding programme aimed at dialogue between neighbouring European countries. 

Gathering – 8 October – 27 November 2011 – Fabrica, Brighton UK

PDF version of this paper available here:

Saturday, 10 September 2011

What do the events of 9-11 tell us?

From the beginning, the mass evacuations of September 11th 2001 were thought to tell us something important about the nature of collective responses to emergencies and disasters. In the months and years following the events, social scientists carried out detailed research investigations of behaviour during the evacuations. Some of their key findings were as follows:

- The building evacuations were highly successful; 99 per cent of occupants below the sites where the planes struck survived. The success was due in large part to efficient spontaneous mass coordination among the people who moved down the stairs of the World Trade Centre towers.

 - Cooperation and helping behaviour was common among the building evacuees

 - Panic was not a collective response; panic ‘was only noted in 1/124 (0.8%) cases’; gathering information was a more common response to the emergency.

 - Over one million people evacuated themselves from the area of New York affected by the disaster, and thousands of members of the public converged on the city in order to offer help to the survivors. A strong sense of community arose among those involved in the evacuation and in the relief effort.

What do these kind of findings mean for our understanding of the nature of collective responses to emergencies and disasters?

For researchers, this is further evidence against already discredited theories such as ‘mass panic’. Theories of ‘mass panic’ suggest that exaggerated fear responses to danger spread easily through a crowd in a process of ‘contagion’, leading to rash, uncoordinated and ultimately dysfunctional behavioural outcomes, such as fighting for and blocking exits. Against this, current thinking on group processes suggests that group membership is not a source of pathology but a source of strength. Psychological group membership provides expectations of unity, offers of support and hence the organization and collective agency people need to respond effectively to adversity. The evidence from the 9-11 evacuation is in line with this account of group processes.

However, the evidence of collective resilience during 9-11 has also been interpreted as telling us something about the national identity of the USA. In this account, the resilient behaviour of the evacuees stands for or represents the character of the rest of those included in the national category.

Are there cross-cultural differences in mass emergency behaviour?

On the one hand, and at least in one sense, it is surely right to say that the evidence from the 9-11 evacuations tells us something about American responses to adversity.

One (mis)reading of cross-cultural psychology gives rise to the question of whether people from individualist national cultures (like the USA) will display less solidarity in mass emergencies than those from ‘collectivist’ cultures (such as Japan). It is a question that I am often asked when I give research presentations. One answer to the question is that, across national cultures as diverse as Japan, the USA, Britain and Germany, the same pattern of solidarity (rather than mass panic) has been documented in response to mass emergencies and disasters. The evidence of mutual coordination and co-operation shown by ‘ordinary Americans’ in the 9-11 mass evacuations therefore undermines notions that this country’s individualist culture precludes the emergence of ties of solidarity and collective strength.

On the other hand, when the collective resilience witnessed in the 9-11 evacuations is taken by politicians and propagandists to demonstrate something special or exceptional about the psychology of the American national category, we can see problems. Specifically, there are two problems with this kind of claim.

Problem 1: Every national category is claimed by its leaders to be ‘special’ in times of war

The first problem is that representatives of every nation state try to claim that their citizens’ resilient response to adversity is special or even unique. It is no coincidence that highlighting public resilience and characterizing the resilient group as standing for the whole national category is particularly prominent in times of war.

In the second world war, the British state highlighted the ‘Blitz spirit’ of Londoners, who faced nightly bombing raids, as a way of raising national morale. The terminology and the image were less a neutral description of events than an attempt to mobilize and create national unity around the war. Following the London bombings of July 2005, politicians and commentators similarly evoked the ‘bulldog spirit’ of Londoners, attributing the calm orderly response of survivors to their special characteristics, which would again serve the nation well in a time of war 'against terror'.

As simple descriptions, these claims to exceptionalism are undermined by the same kind of review evidence that tells against the cross-cultural hypothesis. However, they are not simply descriptions. They are attempts to rally people to wars, and to bring about the resolve and unity of which they speak; they can also operate as exhortations to endure privations in the interest of war on behalf of the national category.

This takes us to the second problem.

Problem 2: Are we really ‘all in it together’?

The second problem with explaining events such as the 9-11 evacuations in terms of the qualities of the national category is that it glosses over possible differences among those included in 'the nation' in terms of interests, experiences and behaviours. Disaster psychologists tell us that both suffering and assistance are often distributed inequitably — reflecting structured inequality in resources (for example by class)

Disaster sociologists and critical journalists add that ‘elites’ and ‘masses’ perceive and respond to emergencies and disasters differently. This can mean that definitions of collective threat may not be universally shared, and therefore that solidarity may be bounded. Specifically, the representatives of the ‘elites’ may regard the response of the mass as more problematic than the emergency itself, and act against the mass on this basis. This is perhaps most starkly illustrated in examples such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In that ‘national emergency’, grassroots solidarity arose particularly in the black working class. However the authorities neglected and imperilled their safety, demonized and pathologized them in propaganda, and colluded in their racist murder.

Accounts of the evacuation of 9-11, by contrast, paint a far less fragmented picture, and indeed illustrate how different sections of society displayed camaraderie during the evacuation.

However, the narrative of businesses and workers alike coming together in shared humanity is somewhat problematized by the fact that, when the first plane struck on 9-11, the immediate response of the Port Agency, who are in charge of the World Trade Centre buildings, was to urge employees to return to their desks. Luckily, most people ignored this advice!

And in the aftermath, a number of underlying social conflicts became explicit. One of the fundamental tensions within the national category was between the masses and the professionals acting on behalf of the ‘elite’. Grassroots and unofficial groups and networks had established themselves and were managing very well to organize food, housing, communications and security for evacuees. But official organizations moved in and sought to shut them down. The ‘festival of mutual aid’ was superseded by an 'elite panic’.

It was not the ‘elite’ and their professionals who effected the mass evacuations; the masses achieved it themselves. The 911 emergency call system was ineffective; the police and fire service did not coordinate properly; people organized evacuation and relief despite, not because of, the normal hierarchical rules and relations. The collective response to the emergency was effective precisely because it was not centrally directed; but professionalization of, and exclusive control over, humanitarian relief was nevertheless imposed. The national policy response went further: national (‘homeland’) security, emphasizing suspicion of one’s neighbours and the need for further centralized control. Through its actions, the ‘elite’ undermined sources of collective resilience and hence produced the very vulnerability - including paralysing fear, lack of freedom and reduced agency - that it was premised upon.

What do the events of 9-11 tell us?

The 9-11 evacuations tell us at least three things.

First these events illustrate very vividly the human potential for solidarity within groups in conditions of adversity.

Second, collective psychosocial resources – and especially the informal and context-dependent psychological groups we belong to – may well be more important than expert and professional response in times of emergency. For one thing, in a large scale emergency, the emergency professionals will simply not be in place in sufficient numbers to be effective.

Third, while the ‘elite’ therefore relies on the masses in emergency response, it also fears them. The otherwise useful concept of ‘elite panic’ could be read as implying that this fear is simply irrational. Elite responses may well be ill-judged, but they may be grounded in fear of real potentials. Following Charles Fritz, Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters are microcosms of mutual aid that may provide insightful glimpses of social possibility. It may be that elites recognize these subversive qualities too, and hence the potential danger to their own privileged position. 


Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: A social identity model. In J. Jetten, C. Haslam, & S. A. Haslam (Eds.), The social cure: Identity, health, and well-being (pp. 195-215). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Are crowds to blame for the plunging financial markets?

Economics seems to be the last remaining social science discipline to retain a place for ‘mass panic’ in its explanatory models. Thus according to economics commentators, the sharp drop in share values at the end of last week is due to ‘panic’ among investors in the financial markets which in turn is attributed to the supposedly collective nature of markets.

For example, on Friday’s ‘The World Tonight’ on Radio 4,‘City Boy’ author Geraint Anderson explained that the trading floor is an emotionally volatile environment which leads to irrational and damaging behaviour because of the presence of other people. While individuals may be rational, ‘crowds are foolish’.

He is not alone in making such claims. Standard sources describe all the major financial crashes of the last 100 years in terms of ‘panic’. The classic case study of a stock market bubble and crash, ‘Tulipolamania’, was also explained in similar terms by Charles Mackay in his book Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds (1841):

‘The more prudent began to see that this folly [investing in tulips] could not last for ever. Rich people no longer bought the flowers to keep them in their gardens, but to sell them again at cent per cent profit. It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end. As this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again. Confidence was destroyed, and a universal panic seized upon the dealers. … The cry of distress resounded every where, and each man accused his neighbour… Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of life, were cast back into their original obscurity. Substantial merchants were reduced almost to beggary…’
(p. 95)

To those of us working in other social sciences, the reliance by economists on the concept of panic is both interesting and perplexing. In the study of emergencies and disasters, panic has been largely discredited as an explanation for mass behaviour. Most commentators regard panic in emergencies and disasters as either rare or a myth. Where people flee from harm, this is often the most reasonable course of action rather than an over-reaction. Coordination and helping is common in emergencies, and people even take personal risks to assist others. Where survivors fail to help others, or even harm them during their own escape, it is usually because they are physically unable to do otherwise rather than because they are overwhelmed by selfish motives. In short, outside of economics, there is little evidence for a supposed tendency to rash behaviour in the face of danger brought on by the fact of crowd membership.

The rational individual and the intrusion of mass psychology

The economic subject is in essence a cognitive individual, not an emotional crowd member. S/he is homo economicus, the rational maximizer of self-interest. Mass psychology impinges upon this rational individual as an external and unwelcome intrusion, foisting upon her not just panic but a range of other emotions, including ‘confidence’, ‘optimism’, ‘nervousness’ and ‘fear’:

‘The key to such widespread phenomena [i.e., panic selling] lies in the nature of the crowd: the way in which a collection of usually calm, rational individuals can be overwhelmed by such emotion [mania, then fear] when it appears their peers are behaving in a certain universal manner.’

While ‘confidence’ may be a good thing, ‘over-confidence’ is not, and can lead to irrational behaviour (such as buying too many tulips). Indeed, if too many individuals display either ‘over-confidence’ (or ‘excessive caution’), this can lead to collective disaster.

Economic commentaries offer various accounts of how social influence occurs and hence emotional and irrational behaviour spreads between people. These include ‘herding’ and ‘mimicry’. The most common concept for explaining social influence within and between financial markets, however, is ‘contagion’. The first person to apply this medical concept, which describes the spread of a disease, to social behaviour was the historian and crowd psychologist Hippolyte Taine. Like ‘herding’ and ‘mimicry’, the concept of contagion conveys mindlessness, and hence uncritical and simple effects of social co-presence. And like ‘mass panic’, ‘contagion’ and these other concepts are today more usually found in the biological sciences than the social sciences.

 A frantic scene on a trading floor

The subjects and social relations of economic production and circulation can be characterized, and indeed reified, in various different ways to achieve different effects. For example, the expression ‘money makes the world go round’ places a human product in the position of producer. After endowing the products of labour with their own agency and power, a second step is to naturalize and eternalize these qualities and the relationships they imply. When ‘the economy’ seems to exist as a separate entity in its own right, then those attempting to ‘steer’ it cannot be blamed so easily when there is a recession; and when ‘market forces’ are inevitable, then social change becomes unthinkable. 

In the present case, over-emotional and rash behaviour brought on by supposed ‘crowd’ membership is reified as a separate ‘social realm’, external to individual ‘human nature’. This psychology of the crowd, rather than other features of the system, can then be blamed for the volatility of the financial markets. Explaining financial market crashes in terms of this mass psychology can thereby draw attention away from other possible causes of crisis. Thus, it could be the lack of proper sociality, rather than its excess, that is at the heart of what goes on in a financial crash.

What is a crowd?

Another way of looking at the problem of market crashes is to say that the financial market is not really a crowd at all. Market crashes are caused by people acting as individuals not as crowd members. In good times as much as bad, calm times as well as stressful times, individuals attempt to maximize their gains or limit their losses. But, because the individuals within each financial market do not communicate, coordinate or plan together, of course they are always trying to second-guess the intentions of other individuals. The imperfect attempt to second-guess, again, takes place in good times as well as bad times. Psychologically, therefore, there is no qualitative difference in behaviour between normal trading conditions and crisis: both are individual rather than collective.

The idea that the financial crash is explicable in terms of exactly the same individual imperfect second-guessing as in normal conditions, rather than being due to collective panic, is not new. Keynes explained market behaviour in roughly these terms many years ago. What we as social psychologists can add conceptually, however, is an elaboration of the idea of the crowd that economists use so loosely.

Hence we distinguish between a physical crowd and a psychological crowd. A physical crowd is simply an aggregate of people who are all present in the same physical space at the same time. A psychological crowds is a co-present set of people who see each other as belonging to the same social category: for example a crowd of protestors against racism or a crowd of Manchester United football supporters. While both may be referred to loosely as ‘crowds’, the behaviour of their ‘members’ towards each other will be very different. Moreover, in situations of possible danger or scarcity, the collective outcomes of this behaviour will also be very different.

In a physical crowd, people act for themselves as individuals. When there is a threat (of danger or missing out), those in a physical crowd will experience that threat in relartion to themselves personally only, and will act in competition with others in the crowd to gain the scarce resource or to escape. The net effect may be that there is less collectively beneficial behaviour across the ‘crowd’ as a whole: the exit is blocked, the market collapses, and so on. In the psychological crowd, by contrast, 'my interest' and ‘your interest’ is superseded by ‘ours’. Other people in the crowd are therefore assisted, and members of the crowd communicate in order to coordinate the most effective response in the interests of the group as a whole.

Evacuation behaviour in two virtual reality ‘crowds’

As well as offering conceptual clarification, we can also add an empirical illustration of some of these arguments. We carried out an experiment to look at effects of collective threat under different psychological conditions. The experiment employed a virtual reality visualization of a scene in an underground railway station. In the visualization, people in the scene run towards the exit. There are bottlenecks on the escalator, and there are a number of injured fellow passengers who need assistance. The participant has to decide how to respond. 

We ran the simulation at the immersion laboratory at St Andrews University, and introduced a number of conditions. In one condition, participants were told that their aim was to get to the sales as quickly as possible to get a bargain. This was the ‘physical crowd’ condition. In a second condition, participants were told that their aim was to escape from the station as quickly as possible because there was a fire that threatened the whole crowd. This was the ‘psychological crowd’ condition. In each condition, the visuals (number of other people running, number of bottlenecks and people needing assistance) were identical.

To check the manipulation, we took measures of participants’ social identification with others in the crowd. As planned and expected, there was greater social identification for those in the psychological crowd than the physical crowd. Importantly, there were also differences between these conditions on all three behavioural measures taken. Compared to participants evacuating the station in the ‘physical crowd’ condition, those in the psychological crowd were more likely to help those who needed assistance, quicker to offer such help, and less likely to push others out of the way. In other words, they acted in ways which were of benefit to other crowd members as crowd members and hence in the interest of the crowd as a whole.

What does this mean for real-world evacuating crowds? With a limited exit and a large crowd, the optimum response for the crowd as whole is collective coordination, such as queuing. By contrast, if people act simply as individuals rather than as fellow crowd members in such contexts, their individual ‘rational self interest’ translates into competition among individuals, such as pushing and shoving, which could block those same exits and hence endanger the crowd as a whole.

What does this mean for the psychology of the financial markets? It means that ‘crowds’ per se are not to blame for plunging financial markets. This in turn means that ‘panic’, conceptualized as the intrusion of irrational mass psychology into the smooth workings of the otherwise rational individual, as an explanation for financial crises obscures more than it reveals. If there is dysfunction in the markets – whole economies plunging into recession and even depression – then it is not because people are acting as crowd members. Quite the reverse: it is precisely the fact that people are acting simply as individuals attempting to maximize their own individual interests, and in a setting where others are involved and their actions have collective outcomes, that is the essence of the dysfunction.



Mackay, C. (1841). Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Ware: Wordsworth.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Take That! Why Pie-Throwing Lives On

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The narrative(s) of 7-7 and their implications for policy and practice

Following the recent inquest into the London bombings of July 7th 2005 the Coroner’s report will be delivered this Friday (6th May).

Everyone who has followed the story of the events themselves, plus the inquest into the events some five years later, has had a view on what happened - whether it be admiration, indignation or both.

In the months immediately following the bombings, I carried out a research study on the experiences and actions of survivors. I have also been asked to speak about this event on numerous occasions to many types of audiences over the past five years. When we talk about the London bombings, one thing I have noticed is the way that the narrative of the event has changed over time.

But that’s not quite accurate. There never was a single unitary narrative of the events – it was always disputed and struggled over. But different versions have come to the fore in the mass media at different times. And journalists contact people like me asking us to speak to one or other of these narratives. Of course I have tried to argue for the particular account I think best fits what happened, but that isn’t always the version that some journalists (and others) want to hear.

When the bombs went off that morning in July 2005, I was on the London underground myself. I had just got onto a crowded platform when a dull monotonic announcement requested that everybody leave the station immediately. No explanation was given, and the public response was one of grumbling, grudging compliance. Then, still not knowing why the tubes weren’t running, I joined thousands of others all walking their way to work across London: a surreal experience. At the time, I had an exhibition at the Royal Society. It was only when I arrived that we were told the news – that people were coming out of some tube stations blackened with soot, that there had been explosions. I was at the Royal Society to exhibit our virtual-reality experiment on mass evacuation behaviour from an underground rail station. I was bracing myself then for press headlines with the usual clichés of mass panic and pandemonium, against which my message about commuter behaviour in emergencies would be swamped. But I was wrong. Quite a different set of clichés were mobilized instead.

British bulldog

The dominant theme in the immediate aftermath was one of resilience. But a particular species of resilience. Britain coped. The emergency services were stretched but all coped. Londoners are a tough lot. After all, they had experience of IRA bombs years ago. The British Bulldog spirit prevailed. The implication – although not stated – was that nationals of other countries might not have displayed such calm, order and dignity in the face of threat and carnage. ‘We’ have the stiff upper lip, after all.

Two weeks later, however, the British were presented as a bit more vulnerable, apparently reacting with fear and nervousness to a second – albeit failed – terrorist attack. But, later, as those present took to the witness box, this picture of panic late gave way to one of heroism as the actions of those who tackled the would-be bombers were described.

The heroism narrative

It was a ‘heroism’ narrative that has, recurrently, been used in some quarters to explain what happened among the survivors at 7-7. The idea has been a preoccupation of journalists – who want to know whether there was a particular type of ‘personality’ who was active or cooperative in emergencies such as 7-7. Were there born leaders among the sheep? What kind of people reacted with courage and decisiveness when others were frozen with fear or panicking?

One of the accounts of the immediate aftermath of the bombings, which emerged from the inquest, thus highlighted the bravery of a small number of (named) individuals who risked their own lives for others. Indeed, what is said to be all the more remarkable about this is the backdrop of ‘bystander apathy’. The narrative suggests that the non-heroic were actually worse than useless in their response.

In our study of the London bombs, we found similar stories of heroism from those we interviewed who were on the bombed trains. The same narrative was also prevalent in the many survivors’ stories from 9-11 – both in popular publications and in the academic literature. But in both these events we found two other features of the public response to put these examples of heroic help into a slightly different perspective than the news stories. In fact one which puts the rest of humanity into a rather better light than that offered by the heroism narrative.

The first thing to say is that heroic help was indeed the exception. That kind of help where the helper risked their own life and safety for others occurred – and in all cases that we are aware of these others were complete strangers; but it was rare.

On the other hand, we know that the survivors were left alone in the bombed out carriages for some time before the emergency services reached them. And yet many did survive despite their horrific injuries. The second thing to say then is that mundane helping was commonplace. Where the journalist always wants to talk about the exceptional behaviour of the few, as a psychologist I am interested in the behaviour of the many. That is actually not only more interesting but more important. If many people had behaved entirely selfishly – or had panicked – many more would have suffered and died. Many of the acts of help – such as sharing water, offering words of reassurance, sometimes even tying tourniquets – were not necessarily heroic in the sense of involving a risk to one’s own life.

The third point is that many of the acts that took place between people in the bombed out trains, as they lie there and as they managed to make their way out, might not even be classed as help at all. They were more like acts of courtesy or respect. They were the small acts of social acknowledgement that allow people to coordinate – especially in situations where there is little safe space available. These mundane acts of courtesy helped people to survive collectively as much as the acts of heroism, for they provided spiritual uplift and hope as well as physical relief:

I remember walking towards the stairs and at the top of the stairs there was a
guy coming from the other direction. I remember him kind of gesturing;
kind of politely that I should go in front—‘you first’ that. And I was struck I
thought God even in a situation like this someone has kind of got manners
really. Little thing but I remember it. (quoted in Drury, Cocking, & Reicher, 2009, p. 79)

The events of 9-11 have been the subject of even more stories of personal heroism than 7-7, but in fact the evacuation of the twin towers required relatively little in the way of heroic help but rather a lot of mundane coordination. Relatively few among those evacuating were injured; most only required others to move down the stairs together with them at a shared pace, to hold the door for the next person, to respect their pace and so on. This, not numerous acts of heroism, was what enabled so many people to survive that disaster.

The Emergency Services as hero and villain

The Emergency Services were at first depicted as collectively and organizationally capable and competent in the news accounts of the bombings. The Inquest added to these stories of individual heroism.

However one of the predominant accounts that emerged in the inquest was of the emergency services as at fault in their response – a reappraisal of the original gloss put on their actions on the day. The police radios didn’t work underground. There was a delay in sending ambulances to the scene of the attacks. And, perhaps, most upsetting in the eyes of some of the public and mass media, the fire brigade did not go down the tunnels immediately.

In a recent interview on the BBC, Jennifer Cole of RUSI argued against this easy attack that has been worked up on the emergency services. She pointed out that while there may have been legitimate complaints about the command and control of the emergency services, the actual behaviour of the emergency services personnel on the ground was probably as good as it could have been. For example, the criticisms of the fire brigade for not going down the tunnel seemed to be based on the assumption that they should be acting as paramedics when they were not equipped to do so.

The key point is that it is not clear that, had the emergency services acted differently, more lives would have been saved. We shall see on Friday whether the Coroner’s report bears this argument out, but it fits with the analysis we provided based on our own study of the London bombs, and indeed it has deeper and broader implications.

These are that, in emergencies, the public – including the victims themselves – are inevitably the first responders. They are on the scene first; they are more numerous than the emergency services; and, importantly, they are motivated, competent and mostly calm enough to act effectively.

The major complaint of those on the London underground trains that were affected by the bombs on July 7th 2005 was the lack of communication about what was going on. A lack of information creates unnecessary anxiety and prevents people from making informed judgements about their actions.

A major recommendation from many of those who were survivors or witnesses to the events on the day was that first aid kits should be made readily available and accessible on the tube trains. People had to improvise bandages from their own clothing. Publicly available first aid kits would be a recognition of the fact that the public are not only motivated and capable of acting as the fourth emergency service in any major incident, but that they are also expected to play this role.

Competing narratives of mass emergency behaviour

I started researching emergencies such as 7-7 because I was interested in group behaviour. But I have since found the way that behaviour is talked about in such events is of importance in its own right. Narratives of resilience and heroism are, like the well-known media image of ‘mass panic’, not simply descriptions of events. They can operate as rationales for practice, justifications for decisions, and reasons for praising some and blaming others. They are highly consequential. If everyone is going to panic, there is no point installing communication systems. But if resilience is widespread – more widespread than the heroic few or the bulldog British – then there is every reason to acknowledge and facilitate public involvement in their own safely and security.


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 27, 66-95.

Drury, J., Novelli, D., & Stott, C. (In preparation). Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Egypt and identity politics

Emotion, collective action and social change.

Social scientific accounts of crowd behaviour used to treat emotions and meaningful political aims as polar opposites. On the one side there were crazes, fads, riots, mass hysteria, mass panics and so on. On the other there was the lone individual, bastion of rationality and logical decision-making. 'Politics' could only take a collective form through the highly structured and organized machinery of the political party system, and collective pressures could only be exercised within the system through trade unions, lobby groups and other institutionalized forms of representation.

This dichotomy between the crowd and politics was a legacy of the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and those others who, in late 19th century Europe, sought to develop a theoretical tool to combat 'the mob', which was seen as a threat to the established order. The distinction between emotion and 'rationality' was reproduced in the 'collective behaviour' tradition in psychology and sociology, and even remained in the (badly) hidden assumptions of ultra-rationalist resource mobilization theory.

The social identity approach began as a 'cognitive' reaction against those 'irrationalist' theories that explained collective action in terms of primitive emotions or instincts (such as frustration-aggression). In the past 10-15 years, however, there has been a concerted attempt by social identity researchers to restore the place of emotions in the understanding of group and intergroup life. Alongside conceptual advances - like the acknowledgement that emotions entail 'knowledge', and that knowledge can be 'hot' - there are very many empirical studies which now converge around the view that emotions are important causes and consequences of collective action.

Anger and collective action

Group-based emotions, such as anger, can be determined by how the group interprets an intergroup event. Feelings of 'injustice', and hence anger at intergroup events, are a key predictor of collective action, as they motivate the group to confront those responsible.

This can be seen in the recent protests in Egypt, which have been explained in terms of a growing gap between rich and poor. While the private sector has benefited recently from economic liberalization, up to 40% of Egyptians are still living on $2 a day. A sense of 'injustice' is not a new experience for many Egyptians. There has been 'a brutal and abusive state security apparatus and a total absence of social justice'  for a number of years.

Empowerment and collective action

Commentators and participants suggested that Egyptians were inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, which occurred only weeks before (just as those in Libya, Bahrain and other places are being inspired by Egypt). There are reports that video footage and updates on social networking sites made others aware of the protests taking place in Tunisia, and inspired them to act too.

So, in the language of social psychology, there was not only a sense of 'injustice' but also a sense of efficacy: of power.

Day 4 of the Egyptian uprising (28/01/11):
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: "Ahmad, what effect has the uprising in Tunisia that led to the ousting of President Ben Ali had on protests in Egypt?"
AHMAD SHOKR: "Well, I think it’s left people really inspired. And it’s you know, many people, for the first time, believe that revolution is possible, that political change from the street is something that can happen. [ ] there’s no doubt that people have definitely been incredibly inspired. I mean, people that I know personally, who just a few weeks ago would have never thought to set foot in a demonstration, who were, for the most part, completely depoliticized, are taking to the streets, are fired up and believe that being on the streets and calling for change can actually do something, can actually make a difference right now."

The subjective sense of power - empowerment – is a predictor of collective action. Importantly, it can also be a result of collective action. The concept of empowerment contains 'efficacy', but it is more than that. It implies (positive) emotion as well as cognition. And it refers to a social relationship of unequal power (that feels bad) which is challenged or overcome (which feels good).

The pictures coming out of Egypt last Saturday (12th February), when Mubarak resigned, seemed a vivid illustration of the emotional experience of empowerment in collective action. People were joyful, uplifted, exhilarated, euphoric - you could see it their faces.

‘In Tahrir Square, we lost our fears and found ourselves’
The Observer, Sunday 13 February 2011

Day 18 - Mubarak flees (11/02/11)
ANJALI KAMAT: "I can’t explain to you what the mood is like here. It’s indescribable. People are just crying with happiness. They’re jumping up and down, so proud to be Egyptian, so proud of what they’ve achieved over the past two weeks. Everyone’s talking about how they did this in nineteen days. People are just ecstatic. They’re doing cartwheels in the middle of the street. They’re jumping up and down. Whole families are coming from across Cairo. I’m just walking a little bit out, and the traffic is unbelievable. Everyone’s honking their cars; it’s like a wedding party. It’s an unbelievable celebration, the biggest goodbye party ever. Everyone is so thrilled that Mubarak is resigning."

The Elaborated Social Identity Model explains this relationship between empowerment and emotion by suggesting that acting to change the world in a way congruent with our identity gives us a sense of agency. We can see that we are agents (not mere objects) through our own action and its impacts. Just as alienation is aversive, so agency feels good. It feels joyful. It makes us happy. It has even been shown to be a predictor of health outcomes, such as lowered blood pressure and enhanced immune functioning.

'I have friends on anti-depressants who, over the last 20 days, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian Revolution'

Empowerment: collective joy as politics

The role of positive emotion has received much less attention in the research literature on collective action than negative emotions such as anger and grievance. This is somewhat surprising given how prominent positive emotions are in the subjective accounts of collective actors. When they talk to us about collective actions that succeeded in some way – actions that were congruent with their collective identities – they are joyful; they beam and smile and laugh. They feel happy at the sheer memory. And they refer to 'empowerment'.

‘Empowerment’ is a term and an idea with its roots in movements for progressive and even revolutionary social change. Despite its co-option by management and business (try a Google search and see what I mean), the term is still meaningful to a lot of people involved in social movements.

Despite the claims of Le Bon that crowd power is 'illusory', the phenomenological - the subjective, the experiential - and the objective world of real social relations of power are connected in the crowd. Empowered collective identities are that connection. The more people that feel joyful, confident and positive about collective action to change their world in a direction defined by their shared identity, the more such action will take place.

Mubarak's resignation prompted celebrations in Tahrir Squarein Cairo.
Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

When it occurs, successful collective action feels like a form of self-realization – except that the self is that of the wider group (not just the individual), and the aims realized might only have emerged in the course of the struggle (rather than pre-existing the struggle as an ‘essence’). Either way, the experience is positive, exhilarating, uplifting. It is to be a subject of history rather than a cog in a machine:

Day 17, the day before Mubarak’s 'resignation' (10/02/11)
AHDAF SOUEIF: "I think what has happened here is that people have they’ve found their voice, and they’ve found their personality. In other words, there is a definite sense that this regime had been not only robbing people of their country, but had been alienating people from their own personalities. And now they have found it. And you see people saying, "They told us we were divided. They told us we’re extreme. They told us we’re ignorant. But here we are, and we’re great." And this is why this is just not going to go away."

If we are right that emotions and meaningful political aims are not after all polar opposites but interconnected, then the crowd can be understood as a conscious agent of social change and not merely a symbolic outburst.

By John Drury and Sanjeedah Choudhury


Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change: Researching crowds and power. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 707-725.