Why cops should trust the wisdom of the crowds

CopscrowdsMichael Bond in New Scientist:

The “unruly mob” concept is usually taken as read and used as the basis for crowd control measures and evacuation procedures across the world. Yet it is almost entirely a myth. Research into how people behave at demonstrations, sports events, music festivals and other mass gatherings shows not only that crowds nearly always act in a highly rational way, but also that when facing an emergency, people in a crowd are more likely to cooperate than panic. Paradoxically, it is often actions such as kettling that lead to violence breaking out. Often, the best thing authorities can do is leave a crowd to its own devices.

“In many ways, crowds are the solution,” says psychologist Stephen Reicher, who studies group behaviour at the University of St Andrews, UK. Rather than being prone to irrational behaviour and violence, members of a crowd undergo a kind of identity shift that drives them to act in the best interests of themselves and everyone around them. This identity shift is often strongest in times of danger or threat. “The ‘mad mob’ is not an explanation, but a fantasy,” says Reicher.

All this has profound implications for policing and the management of public events. “The classic view of crowd psychology, which is still widespread, talks about the loss of selfhood, leaving people at best out of control and at worst generically violent,” says Reicher. “That is not only wrong, it’s also counterproductive. If you believe all crowds are irrational, and that even rational people are liable to be dangerous in them, then you’ll treat them accordingly, often harshly, and stop people doing things they have a right to do. And that can lead to violence.”

[H/t: Pablo Policzer]