Published: 10 March, 2011
by DAN CARRIER
WHEN the people of Tunisia took to the streets to topple the corrupt dictatorship of Zine Ben Ali, there was a tourist in the crowd who had more than a passing interest in how the events were unfolding.
Psychologist Dr Chris Cocking was on holiday in the north African country when the revolution began. But for the London Metropolitan University lecturer, watching Tunisians call for a fresh start was not only uplifting in terms of seeing a people rise up in the name of freedom – it was interesting from the point of view of his current research, too.
The academic found himself in the midst of revolution in the Middle East as he conducts
new research in the psychology of crowd behaviour. So rather than cower in a hotel room, he went to investigate.
“We found ourselves caught up in a couple of riots,” he explains – and while this may sound like a daunting experience, for Dr Cocking, the behaviour of the crowds confirmed his theory of how humans act when large groups find themselves in potential danger.
“Despite press reports, we felt safe,” he says. “The only time we felt concerned was when the police arrived and people scattered.
“People spoke to us, and we found that not only were they not threatening, many were coming up to reassure us – to explain why they were targeting certain buildings and not others, and give their view of the president.
“It gave me first-hand evidence as to how crowds are reported compared to the reality on the ground. I have to take issue with the media [because] they pursued an angle – “terrified British holidaymakers caught up in the middle of a revolution” – that buys into outdated views not only of how crowds behave, but also ignores how people are more resilient in the face of adversity than they are given credit for.
“This reflects a deeply pathological view of crowds pervasive in social discourse, but not supported by evidence.”
Dr Cocking is interviewing people who took to the streets in London to campaign against public spending cuts and tuition fees.
“What happens when crowds scatter, or are charged?,” he asks. “We have found that even when people are running away from police, they are not panicking – they are actually fleeing in a logical way.
“Police tactics of kettling and charging have been discussed in terms of human rights, but not looked at in terms of what it does psychologically to people caught up in it.”
Dr Cocking says the perception of large gatherings is they quickly turn into an unruly mob, who act illogically. He says this stems from work done by a 19th-century French aristocrat Gustave Le Bon.
Le Bon’s theories were formed during the Paris Commune in 1871, and he studied working-class movements with a degree of disdain.
In 1895, Le Bon penned The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and argued that when humans get together, people behave irrationally. He spoke of how individuals merge into a “collective mind”, as if being in a group makes us act in ways that we would otherwise not.
Of course, his aristocratic background meant the events of the French Revolution were burned into the folklore of his social class, so it is hardly surprising he argued that being in a crowd turned us into primitive and destructive entities, where normal rules of behaviour go out of the window.
Dr Cocking argues that this is nonsense; that Le Bon’s theories are those of a political reactionary who was deeply antagonistic towards popular democracy. Yet Le Bon’s theories have stuck and are repeated without challenge.
“Le Bon has influenced people in authority – the police, army, governments and the media,” he says. “In other words, he has influenced groups who have something to fear from crowds. That is why they paint them as deeply illogical bodies, and say we should be scared of them.
“I say our reaction to crowds is ideological, and draws on that [Le Bon] text, which was anecdotal and unscientific.”
Dr Cocking’s work on crowd disorder and mass panic in the modern age backs up his theory. He has studied contemporary disasters, including the July 7 bombings, and collated evidence on how groups behave when faced with extraordinary situations.
“The idea that people experience mass panic is not supported by empirical evidence,” he says.
“I have researched incidents such as Hillsborough and the Bradford City disaster. People do not push and trample each other.
“Even in emergencies, where there is a threat to life, people co-operate and help.
“You find individuals are painted as heroes, helping each other out, as if it is not the norm – but our research has shown this is a logical way to react.”
• If you have been on a recent protest in London and experienced police charges or have been kettled, please email email@example.com if you wish to take part in Dr Cocking’s research.