Convergence theory holds that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular people. Thus, crowds amount to a convergence of like-minded people. In other words, while contagion theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, convergence theory says the opposite: that people who wish to act in a certain way come together to form crowds.
An example of convergence theory states that there is no homogeneous activity within a repetitive practice, sometimes observed when an immigrant population becomes common in a previously homogeneous area, and members of the existing community (apparently spontaneously) band together to threaten those trying to move into their neighborhoods. In such cases, convergence theorists contend, the crowd itself does not generate racial hatred or violence; rather, the hostility has been simmering for some time among many local people. A crowd then arises from convergence of people who oppose the presence of these neighbors. Convergence theory claims that crowd behavior as such is not irrational; rather, people in crowds express existing beliefs and values so that the mob reaction is the rational product of widespread popular feeling.
Social scientists have developed theories to explain crowd behavior:
1. Contagion Theory – the Contagion Theory was formulated by Gustave Le Bon. According to him, crowds exert a hypnotic influence over their members. Shielded by their anonymity, large numbers of people abandon personal responsibility and surrender to the contagious emotions of the crowd. A crowd thus assumes a life of its own, stirring up emotions, and driving people toward irrational, even violent action. Le Bon’s Theory, although one of the earliest explanations of crowd behavior, is still used by many people. However, critics argue that the “collective mind” has not been documented by systematic studies. Furthermore, although collective behavior may involve strong emotions, such feelings are not necessarily irrational.
2. Convergence Theory – since the Contagion Theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, Convergence theory states that people who want to act in a certain way come together to form crowds. It asserts that people with similar attributes find other like-minded persons with whom they can release underlying tendencies. People sometimes do things in a crowd that they would not have the courage to do alone because crowds can defuse responsibility. Crowds, too, can intensify a sentiment simply by creating a critical mass of like-minded people.
3. Emergent-Norm Theory – according to Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian, crowds begin as collectivities composed of people with mixed interests and motives. Especially in the case of less stable crowds—expressive, acting and protest crowds—norms may be vague and changing, as when one person decides to break the glass windows of a store and others join in and begin looting merchandise. In short, people in crowds make their own rules as they act.
4. Complex Adaptive Systems theory – Dutch scholar Jaap van Ginneken claims that contagion, convergence and emergent norms are just instances of the synergy, emergence and autopsies or self-creation of patterns and new entities typical for the newly discovered meta-category of complex adaptive systems. This also helps explain the key role of salient details and path-dependence in rapid shifts.
When someone tries to persuade us, or when things are happening which we are interested in doing, there are three dimensions we may adopt: acceptance of the idea, rejection or no commitment (neutral). We are likely to have wider latitude of options about issues in which we are less ego-involved. In other words, people are more open minded about issues in which their own inadequacies are not being questioned, and less open-minded about issues that they perceive bring into question their own man or woman-hood or self-perceptions. Ego-involved attitudes are especially difficult to change. If someone had their mind made up to overfly the mountain that afternoon, it would have been difficult for them to back down, especially in the light of believing that their peers would think less of their manhood if they did back down. Similarly, if someone went to the mountain uncommitted about flying, peer pressure could have caused them to become committed on the spot, especially if ego were involved. This commitment might have been either to fly or not to fly, equally strongly.
Most social scientists distinguish between an audience and a crowd. An audience is a highly structured group, with a fairly definite educational or recreational purpose. Its members are oriented toward the speaker, performers, or event and only incidentally toward each other. The audience is usually not participating in the event, or very little. A crowd is less clearly organized, although the crowd members are in intimate contact. A crowd is a congregate group of people who have temporarily identified themselves with common values and who are experiencing similar emotions. One psychologist noted that crowds are marked by increased suggestibility and loss of restraint. A collective mind is formed via almost hypnotic contagion; intellectual aptitudes and moral ideas are blurred. Another behavior expert suggested that, “the person in the crowd behaves just as he would behave alone, only more so.” Often a leader emerges to lead the crowd in some behavior that may be extreme. This leader focuses and expresses the sentiments of the group and may harangue his followers to action. If the leader goes first, some, if not many, people in the crowd will mimic the leader’s actions.
Three interrelated influences may explain crowd behavior:
1. General Atmosphere or Setting: A social event has occurred or is about to occur. The hype about the event may be more important than the event itself. The way it is reported determines the way the situation is perceived and interpreted-this provides the psychological atmosphere.
2. Dynamic Tendencies: Depending on how the situation is perceived, motives, emotions and sentiment become important. These may be hostile or fearful sentiments, or they may be heroic or generous, according to the perception of the event.
3. Conformity and Suggestibility: through overstimulation between the leader and followers, and among the members of the crowd, people become suggestible and they begin to identify with the activity in progress. Conformity or solidarity emerges. Critical abilities are lost or diminished; people tend to imitate what the leader or another person does. Another theory suggests that crowds tend to be made up of people who have similar predispositions, who will naturally respond to the stimuli in common ways and who will want to do similar activities.
(Crowd Behavior Pilot Judgment and Balloons by Dr. Tom McConnell at
Crowds, we are often told, are dumb. They obliterate reason, sentience and accountability, turning people into helpless copycats. Commentators on the riots offered different explanations but most agreed that crowd psychology was part of the problem. “The dominant trait of the crowd is to cut its myriad individuals to a single, dysfunctional persona,” wrote the novelist Will Self in the New Statesman. “The crowd is stupider than the averaging of its component minds.” The violence was said to have spread like a “contagion” through the crowd, facilitated by social media. For those who wanted to sound scientific, the term to drop was “deindividuation”: the loss of identity and moral responsibility that can occur in a group. But do crowds really make us more stupid?
Last year, the world watched a crowd bring down an autocratic government, by the simple act of coming together in one place, day after day, night after night. Egyptian protesters created a micro-society in Tahrir Square, organizing garbage collection, defending them when they needed to, but otherwise ensuring the protest remained peaceful. As well as courage, this took intelligence, discipline and restraint. Few international observers accused the crowd in Tahrir Square of being dysfunctional, or of turning its members into animals. The Tahrir protesters also used social media, but rather than calling for a ban, as some in Britain did after the riots, people wrote eulogies to the liberating potential of Twitter. It seems that not all crowds are bad. But when bad things happen, the crowd gets the blame.
Crowds can change the way people behave. There is a difference between what you might call an accidental crowd, as in a railway station, and an organized crowd: people brought together by a shared purpose—supporting a team, overthrowing a despot. Being a part of such a crowd can lead you to do things you wouldn’t normally do and might even disapprove of in normal circumstances: chant, swear at a referee, bellow the chorus to Robbie William’s “Angels”. But that’s not to say that the person you adopt in this context isn’t “you” or that it’s irrational to take part in crowd rituals (in a crowd of Barcelona supporters, the irrational thing to do would be to cheer on Real Madrid). When an accountant plays air guitar at a concert, he isn’t giving up his identity so much as finding a neglected corner of it. Above all, he is enjoying the glorious sensation of feeling part of something bigger than himself.
An accidental crowd can become an organized one in response to an external threat. Passengers on the Piccadilly line who left King’s Cross at 8.50am on July 7th 2005 would have felt little in common with each other, bar the tetchiness of the commuter. But when the carriage exploded and the survivors realized they had been attacked, they performed heroic acts to save the lives of strangers they had just been ignoring. The Tahrir Square crowd included supporters from Cairo’s leading soccer teams, Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek. The two groups have a longstanding post-match tradition of vicious fighting. Yet in Tahrir Square they stood together against Mubarak’s thugs. Crowds are as likely to bring out the best in us as the worst.
(INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, by Ian Leslie November/December 2011)
Decision-making plays a major role in crowd behavior, although casual observers of a crowd may not realize it. Crowd behavior reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds. Emergent-norm theory points out that people in a crowd take on different roles. Some step forward as leaders; others become lieutenants, rank-and-file followers, inactive bystanders or even opponents. Each Member in the crowd plays a significant role.
Another form of crowd behavior is where a large group of people become subservient and become almost totally obedient in the face of great danger and even death, even when this listless behavior allows others to harm and kill them easily. This is a strange contradiction to a person’s normal instinctive resistance to anything that might harm or kill them. It usually occurs in crowds that are being held captive and have been under a great deal of stress and fear for prolonged periods of time. It was seen during the Holocaust with people in concentration camps allowing themselves to be led to their deaths without resisting. The theory behind this behavior is that when faced with an imminent threat people in a crowd will try and become invisible within the group to become anonymous. The reason for doing this is an unconscious hope of staying unnoticed by the people issuing the threat, thus allowing them to survive. It can be compared to herd behavior in animals and school behavior in fish. It relies heavily on the fact that humans are essentially still herd animals and that they have an instinct to use the great numbers in a group to hide themselves within it to lessen the chance that they will be singled out and killed by a predator. The people within the crowd will become extremely obedient to their captors in order to avoid being detected. It has proven to be a dangerous form of behavior that allows large numbers of people to be killed with little resistance by another group of people.
Crowds are the elephant man of the social sciences. They are viewed as something strange, something pathological, and something monstrous. At the same time they are viewed with awe and with fascination. However, above all, they are considered to be something apart. We may choose to go and view them occasionally as a distraction from the business of everyday life, but they are separate from that business and tell us little or nothing about normal social and psychological realities.
(The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics Stephen Reicher, School of Psychology University of St. Andrews at


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