Why do crowds behave the way they do?


COMMENT: Crowd management in disaster relief —Naveed Ahmed Shaikh

Bringing a sense of organisation to the crowd will help it observe general norms of behaviour. Due to a lack of direction, people cram to a point and the resultant jostling and pushing creates an atmosphere where self-control is lost

Two women died due to a stampede at a food distribution site (‘Two women die in flour distribution stampede’, Daily Times, August 21, 2010). Other news reports say that men were muscling their way to get food while the women and children went hungry. Why do crowds behave the way they do? How does a peaceful congregation turn into a hysterical mob? Why do people fight with each other for something that all can have and share?

Dozens of people have died in Pakistan due to this mob frenzy phenomenon, many more get injured and still more — especially women and the old — do not get their share of food and other supplies. A better understanding of the reasons that cause chaos and misery can help to formulate a policy response from the authorities. Standard operating procedures can be developed and disseminated to government officials and private philanthropists for better orchestrating such events. More immediately, the need for such guidelines and training is essential to avoid deaths and injury during the food and ration distribution to flood-affected people.

Considerable research on the subject has attempted to explain the reasons as to why a gathering of people changes and begins to act as a crowd that is less observant to accepted social rules. Respect for women and the elderly disappears and basic instincts take over. In general, members of the crowd think and act differently from ways that they would act if they were alone.

Several scientists have tried to give a theoretical framework for crowd behaviour. The classical theory is based on the disappearance of the identity of individual members in a mob situation. The resultant anonymity leads to a complete disappearance of the sense of responsibility that otherwise controls individuals. Another theory puts frustration centre-stage. The frustration amongst the members of the crowd can lead to aggression. This frustration could be because of a real or perceived sense of deprivation or could come out because of fear of the unknown, e.g. whether food will be available the next day. However, some theorists are of the opinion that extreme temperatures and physical pain could also be the source of unruly behaviour. Thus, environmental and cognitive influences mediate to bring out irrational behaviour. Famous sociologist R H Turner sees the lack of formal organisation in crowds as the cause of an absence of rules and norms in them. The theory of expectation or ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ also plays a role in members of the crowd anticipating loot and plunder from their fellow members and thus every member rushes to supplies and initiates a pillage cycle.

The standard response of the authorities is often to use force to control the situation by ruthless baton charging and tear gas shelling. The source of a lack of institutional planning and response could be the apathy and indifferent attitude of our elite towards the common people. They take refuge in the concept that these people can never be ‘civilised’ hence the only option is to use brute force, when required. This concept, of course, is not true; it is rather a cover-up for their lack of insight and care for our people.

A proper examination of this phenomenon can result in devising standard operating procedures (SOPs) that could greatly minimise the chances of death and injury of those stranded and affected. Some immediate steps can be taken to avoid this scenario during food distribution events. The above analysis of crowd behaviour gives us some key points that should be an integral part of new SOPs governing the crowd management framework. As explained above, the efficient management of crowds can greatly be enhanced by preventing the loss of identity of the members. Before the distribution process begins, tokens or some visible identity cards or markers can be provided to the heads of families. This process should happen before the food delivery trucks arrive at the site. By marking people, we can also avoid old and sick people, women and children congregating around the distribution site; usually they are the ones who often become victims of the frenzy.

Frustration, another factor for mob behaviour, is often the result of the perception that supplies are less than the need and only a few will be able to get to them. Most often than not, this is not the case. However, as supply trucks come in, sequence pressure on those arrived first causes the trouble. A remedy could be collecting all arriving vehicles at one point and then letting them head to distribution sites.

Furthermore, bringing a sense of organisation to the crowd will help it observe general norms of behaviour. Due to a lack of direction, people cram to a point and the resultant jostling and pushing creates an atmosphere where self-control is lost. As a remedy, volunteers from the crowd can be engaged with the responsibility of implementing laid down procedures. The volunteers should be detected and engaged at the outset with the assured delivery of supplies to their families, if order is maintained. The crowd then can be divided into labelled groups for easy management.

Finally, the distribution model needs total revamping. Currently, the authorities use the ‘funnel’ format for the distribution of packets of food items. This is a one-nod model where a couple of workers, often at the back of the van or truck, try to distribute items to hundreds of people. This model directs the crowd pressure to a single point and can result in a stampede. A more logical model would be the ‘box’ format. In this case, the arriving food convoys should park in a wider space barricaded by a tent or canopy. The rectangular model creates four nodal points for distribution, which can be manned by the help of staff and volunteers. This model will naturally divide the crowd by four as well as increase the distribution points. Readers can take a pencil and paper and draw the funnel and box models side by side to see the immediate improvement that can be brought in just by changing the spatial layout.

The model presented takes its guidance from social science theories; however, converting this to common sense understanding requires attitudinal change in the mindset of functionaries. The best way to change the attitude of the people is by showing them that this can be done. The government can take the lead and implement the model in the tent cities erected for the flood victims. It can be hoped that successful execution of the model will inspire others to follow suit.

The writer is a Fulbright Scholar and graduate in Education Policy and Management from Vanderbilt University. He has been working on education policy reform since 2001 and is currently associated with a reform programme in Sindh. He can be reached at nav.gos@gmail.com

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