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Crowd psychology

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Crowd psychology refers to studies and theories regarding the behaviour of crowds and of the people within them and the psychological causes and effects of crowd participation.

Many of the first works on the subject were largely theoretical and date from the late nineteenth century, an era when there was widespread concern with the dangers of rioting. The most prominent study was Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895). Le Bon suggested that when people become part of a crowd they lose almost all of their individuality, autonomy and personal judgement and morality, becoming caught up in the crowd's collective and often irrational influence. According to Le Bon, this allows crowds to commit acts of destruction, violence and cruelty which, individually, no one member would contemplate. Le Bon's conception of the crowd applied not only to mobs of rioters, but to any group of people, even in small numbers. Carl Jung also wrote on the subjects of crowds and on the "collective unconscious", a concept which can apply to whole societies as well as to crowds.

The crowd effect was shrewdly understood by the dictators of the twentieth century, particularly Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, who knew the level of excitement they could generate by addressing impassioned speech to huge crowds at public rallies. Hitler's ideas of crowd control through propaganda were heavily influenced by Le Bon's text.

Convergence theory is another theory regarding crowd behaviour, which emerged during the twentieth century, arguing that crowds act in a unified way, not because of the collective 'mind' of the crowd, as Le Bon suggested, but because they tend to be composed of like-minded people who are attracted into the crowd situation because of a shared interest or objective.

In reality the truth is probably somewhere between these two models. Being part of a crowd is certainly influential on the individual's feelings and behaviour. For example, one of the reasons people attend live sport events and music concerts, other than the spectacle itself, is the atmosphere they feel as part of a crowd and the shared excitement and emotions.

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