Crowds aren't stupid. Crowds aren't smart. Crowds are people.

We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.

Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?

Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."

Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled. (Perhaps a Le Bonian understanding of crowds makes us feel more comfortable about the atrocities of the 20th century.) But “The Crowd” was more a work of philosophy than of science, McPhail told me. Le Bon’s ideas were based on armchair analysis of past events, not on carefully documented studies of crowds in action. In the 1960s, sociologists began to study protests and public gatherings, and they realized that the things they believed about crowd behavior didn’t align with what took place in the real world.

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Image: Crowd, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jamescridland's photostream


  1. James Surowiecki wrote an excellent book about this called The Wisdom of Crowds.  It is a must read if this article piques your interest.

  2. The semantics are important here, though. Crowds DO NOT act like 1000 individuals, unaware of those around them. We have a word for “crowd” for the same reason we have the concept of a democracy making a choice. The actions taken aren’t the same as individuals, unsurrounded and unsupported, would take.

    So no, Crowds aren’t people, not if we hope to understand how they act differently than an individual would.

    1. Our society is so individualistic, we have difficulty conceiving of meaningful power or influence coming from anything other than an individual, or discrete entity.  A look at history books shows this: it’s a long list of specific people who caused everything that ever happened to happen.

      The idea that when a bunch of people get together, things start happening which none of the individual people could have (and/or would have) caused by themselves…that’s just a weird idea to us.  I’m not causing this, you’re not causing this…who exactly is?  Someone must be doing it.  Implications of collectivism sneak in, and that makes everyone nervous.

      So we anthropomorphize the crowd, cast it as an individual or an entity, so we can understand it in the terms we’re familiar with.  But metaphors like that lead to misunderstandings, like how we called information “intellectual property”, or when we cast the market as a god-like “invisible hand”.  The fact is, crowds are not things – they are situations.  And like any other situation, the people who are in a crowd have different possibilities and priorities than they otherwise would.

  3. ah-well, so much for the whole concept of emergent properties

    “A person is smart. People are dumb panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”  –K (men in black)

    furthermore since we learn here that “Crowds are people” and we learned from some politician (i forget who) that “Corporations are people too (my friend)” we deduce that Crowds and Corporations share the quality of being people neither of which pay enough in taxes (for having so much influence)

    1. I think the basic idea is that crowd properties arise out of normal individual properties, and not some alternate type of behavior that kicks in with numbers like locust swarming. It’s being overstated but is a fair point to consider.

      1.  “I think the basic idea is that crowd properties arise out of normal individual properties”

        And those majority properties are:

        “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” – George Carlin

  4. I wouldn’t call Le Bon’s theories “common sense.”

    I would call them “propaganda custom-crafted to legitimize violent crackdowns against protest and other forms of assembly.”

  5. However, there are many well known studies (most people who took any sociology courses have read them) about how people tend to lose a sense of personal responsibility in crowds, the anonymity effect.

    And if you’ve ever had any emergency medical training, one of the first things they tell you is never to yell to a crowd ‘go get help’ or ‘call 911′, you point at a single individual and tell them ‘YOU, call 911′, because then they feel personally responsible, not an anonymous face in the crowd. I’ve seen this first hand, and it’s definitely accurate.

  6. Physical crowds of people – and only those I will talk about here, not online or social or political crowds – of course have no metaphysical group conciousness or something of that kind – but a group of thousend people in a panic will not act like thousand individuals in a panic, because each individuals view becomes limited, because each individuals options of action become limited, because every physical person becomes a physical particle n a mass of physical particles. Mass panics and stampedes do happen, mass hysteria does happen. It may not be uplifting to think of a crowd of people as an abstract substance of physical particles, but in terms of disaster prevention this is an important aspect, and ignoring this fact costs lives again and again

  7. Apropos of nothing, after about two hours reading Yelp reviews, I pretty much gave up altogether on crowd-sourcing.

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