Something special happens when we gather in crowds. Look no further than the emotions aroused in an audience at a theatre, stadium, or political meeting. People who, as individuals, might be shy or retiring, in groups, can become part of a powerful mass that is greater than the sum of the parts. This new power can have a very emotional component which in some instances exhilarates, in others numbs, or even terrifies. What is going on?

For me, there is little more exhilarating, even empowering, than when, at the sight of a goal, 10, 000 of us stand up, raise our arms, clench our fists, and cheer in unison. Then, with one voice, we (the crowd) chant ‘our’ song. Here is sheer shared joy expressed in some physical form. Although I will not know anyone else in the crowd, save the one or two who came with me, the feeling of oneness is overpowering. Moreover, possibly because I am doing things I never normally do, it is also somehow liberating. In these circumstances, not sharing in such a celebration, as one might do by remaining seated or staying silent, would be unthinkable and in practical terms almost impossible.

How different are the actions and sentiments of the thousands of supporters of the opposition. For them the goal brings silence, stillness and studied sedation. They are, as a group, stunned and miserable.

In such crowds, partisan animosity can arise and become ugly and frightening. But whatever happens here it is only game. For a reminder of real crowd ugliness and terror, imagine what it was like for jews witnessing Nazi rallies in the 1930s.

For many, the football scenario has an altogether primitive, almost animal, quality. But a similar sense of oneness can occur at ‘intellectual’ gatherings. At a recent meeting to launch a group lobbying for a change in the law in favour of assisted dying [Help to allow terminally ill patients to die, BMJ Blogs, 20th October 2010] some sixty of us listened attentively to lectures and discussion on a very serious issue with some unquestionably gloomy undertones. However during the meeting there was a palpable feeling of oneness, even excitement, amongst those gathered, and the feeling was confirmed by participants when chatting informally over coffee or later at lunch. Something special, and for me at least, unforgettable, had happened that bound us. The feeling was part of the chemistry of being there with that group. The same talks heard on the radio, watched on a video, or read in a book, just would not have affected me in the same way, nor engendered the same esprit de corps. And, as with football, there was more in the audience than the sum of the parts.

It would be tempting to believe that it was the intellectual content of the launch that linked us all, but a second recent experience suggests that there was almost certainly another element. The event was an hour-long reading in France of poems by Jacques Prévert. The performers were well known to me (one was my former French teacher) and the presentations felt very professional. But poetry is language at its most sophisticated, and despite my five years of French I understood next to nothing. It was a wet Sunday afternoon and we were in a village hall in a seaside fishing community. To my eye (and I had time to look as my mind wandered!) the audience of over 200, was spellbound – and I was too. Somehow, for me, just being there with the shared intensity and respect was special, and that feeling of something special was echoed in discussion when the reading ended. Although I had little understanding of the ideas the poems had expressed, simply sitting in that group was empowering. Yet again, the power of crowd had waved its wand, and I will be going back for more.

There can be no denying crowd power, but what actually is a crowd? Based on the adage ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’, I will go for three or more. And what is it that makes some crowds gel? Here, at the launch and the poetry reading, the process happened in front of me and took me by surprise. But what senses we used, or messages we detected, that allowed us to bind remain a mystery. At the football match the gelling had already been done and I simply became part of an established crowd, but I recognised the oneness, approved, and joined in with gusto. Either way, the ability of human beings to recognise such oneness is clearly a skill well honed, and a capacity which will have been evolved to serve some important purpose. It could be that the purpose might simply be to provide feelings of empowerment, liberation, and protection (implicit in oneness).

3 thoughts on “Every crowd has a silver lining

  1. Crowd do worry me, because I am frightened of losing control of myself, and acting with bacchic wildness, or religious fervour. Therefore, I only risk being in a crowd when I feel fairly confident that i will remain myself and not spin out of control and quite literally lose myself on a surge of emotion. I am frightened when my heart rules my head. The way neuroscientists like Damasio describe it, suggests that we are able to process out feelings before our thoughts developmentally. So crowd situations are probably a way in which we stay linked to our early feelings, those which cannot be expressed in words or thoughtful ways. Music, dance, atmospheres of shared focus, and indeed tribal feelings of football behaviour, and dangerously, religious moments in crowds.

    In modern life we are expected to operate rationally for most of the time, but in doing that we are in danger of losing some of the central aspects of our humanity. Intuition arising from experienced hunches (used when professional judgements are made) is a powerful way of working, but it depends on the development of thought. I suppose I am suggesting that we ought not to divide and separate thoughtful feelings from feelings with implicitly situated thoughts which are not at a conscious level.

    My fear of football crowds, political rallies, religious worship and gatherings is that they reside, often, in feelings rather than thoughtful feelings, and so people tend to be sept away on an orgy of overwhelming emotion. But the arts is different. There is no harm in dance, song, music, poetry, singing in a choir etc. unless the arts are used to manipulate feelings, which is not unusual.Neither is there harm in a group of professional, with a great deal of shared ground through their training, although often interpreting professional thinking in entirely different ways, finding a powerful coming together of focus on a subject in which they are all interested. That kind of agreement brings a surge of feeling which is useful too.

    I could never be a revolutionary person. I am an evolutionist. I feel much more comfortable building on past thoughts, unpicking and rearranging as knowledge and understanding gathers, so that i know what i feel as well as what i think. Consequently, i am a very emotional person! Knowing what you feel is a consequence of having thought led feelings!! But to be lost in a dance, or a piece of music, to try out an idea with trusted colleagues in a work context and find more agreement that expected…….that kind of crowd behaviour i can manage. For that reason, I savour improvised dances, music etc and creativity. That is how I teach. The less I know the context and the people, the more i rigidly plan the teaching, but I do my best teaching when I plan a framework and then apply it through interaction with the group of children or the adults in a group. That kind of crowd experience is of the best, deeply satisfying, when you share the control, but you dont feel you are losing your sense of control of the situation. The teachers who taught me in this way are the ones who inspired me at the time, and continue to do so through a mixture of the residue of emotion this has left in me, and the tools they equipped their crowd with to think, They gave their students the possibility for thoughtful feelings. There was passion in their style, but never at the expense of analysis and reflection. That is real crowd control.

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  2. When younger I would siit at the front of a group or crowd and create for myself the feeling that I was the only person there and that the teacher/orator was addressing only me. The rest of the ‘crowd’ was wiped out and considered no more than a distraction. With age things have changed and being immersed in, and so part of, a crowd has its own rewards. Its odd how things change.

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  3. There’s another side to this – when the crowd gets ‘out of control’ or is whipped up and becomes a mob or a riot ensues. Unlikely to happen at the Proms perhaps but one recalls Hillsborough and Heysel for example.

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