Studying crowd psychology could help prevent disaster at densely-packed events such as the Hajj, say UK researchers. Jim Drury reports.
Understanding the difference between 'psychological' crowds and 'physical' crowds could help prevent tragedies at densely-packed events. That's according to Sussex University researchers. They say 'psychological crowds' share a social identity and can act as a mass, whereas 'physical' crowds behave as individuals. They filmed two groups of volunteers walking on campus - a physical crowd leaving a lecture and this psychological crowd - given black caps and told they shared a common identity. SOUNDBITE (English) ANNE TEMPLETON, PSYCHOLOGY PHD STUDENT AT UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX, LOOKING AT VIDEO OF SOCIAL IDENTITY CROWD, AND SAYING: "What this shows is that even though the crowd have got the entire path that they can take up, they've got all the grass around it, what they're doing is sticking to one part of the path. They're actually staying close together, clustering close together. They're walking slower, in order to keep close together and one another and they're actually walking further in order to keep this formation, stay together, as a group.....You wouldn't see this in the physical crowd where people would be walking at different speeds, they might be rushing past one another, apart from the small groups that are staying together." Large crowds at public events can be dangerous. Reports suggest that more than 2,000 pilgrims died in the crush at this year's Hajj. This followed a decade of the event passing off safely, after Saudi authorities spent $300 million on safety measures. That's despite three million annual visitors and crowds of up to nine people per square metre round the Grand Mosque. Researchers questioned pilgrims at an earlier Hajj and found many crowd members actually felt safer as the throng got bigger. SOUNDBITE (English) DR JOHN DRURY, READER IN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX, SAYING: "That sounds strange and counter-intuitive. And then we looked at some other measures and we got an explanation for that, which is that the more that people identify with the crowd the more that they expect social support, and this is a common feature of psychological crowds - that when you're an 'us' or a 'we' you expect others to support you, to give you help and come to your aid." The Saudis have hired mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists to make the Hajj safer. The Sussex team say consulting psychologists in future should now be considered.