Beware the mind of the crowd

Abstract: If you think you’re in your right mind shopping in a crowd – think again!…

…and they’re off! And they stop. This weekend sees the start of ‘the madness’, when hundreds of thousands of people gallop into the province’s shopping centres and promptly come to a grinding halt. They will curse and they will say how much they hate it, all the time unaware that they are undergoing a subtle but fascinating change.

This is one of the most stressful weekends of the year. Many businesses around the country closed shop on Thursday ahead of the long weekend, their staff heading off on their holidays, many of them into KZN. The province is groaning under the strain of the extra bodies, and most of them will squeeze into the already busy shopping centres, credit and debit cards at the ready, impatient to place added burden on their economic precariousness.

Although many will joke that Christmas shopping is just a little ‘retail therapy’, the reality is that whereas a gentle amble in a quiet shopping environment may be good for the soul, being part of a crowded mass may not.

It was the famous French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon who, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gave real impetus to the concept of crowd psychology. He suggested that when individuals are placed in a crowd, the unconscious mind of every individual consolidate to create a ‘collective mind’. More importantly for Le Bon, this ‘collective mind’, encourages behaviour that is more primitive and uninhibited.

This may sound like the foundation for a science fiction tale of a dystopian, totalitarian regime holding sway over its people through mind-control; but the truth is far more unsettling. It’s known that Le Bon’s work into crowd psychology inspired two of the last century’s most influential dictators – Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. They both understood that once in a crowd, individuals lost their capacity for rational thinking, and that it was then easier to get people to do their bidding.

This has dramatic consequences when money is floating around. The iconic British economist John Maynard Keynes realised that in groups, individuals tend to imitate group behaviours rather than decide independently based on their own information. He believed that such behaviour – known as ‘herding’ – was a response to uncertainty and the belief that the rest of the crowd is better informed. It’s why people in a shopping centre are drawn to a restaurant that is full rather than one that isn’t, even though it would have plenty of tables to choose from.

For Keynes, the irrationality of the psychology of crowd behaviour explained the dramatic fluctuations of markets – the frenzied buying that creates bubbles and the panicky selling that can wipe out banks and entire national economies. But this temporary irrationality is also a driver of the science of retail. Retailers will slash prices of goods knowing full well that the brief frenzy it will create will encourage shoppers to buy other goods, even at higher prices. It’s also why having people sitting at home shopping on-line is something of a concern for them.

The foundation for crowd psychology lies in the fact that we are social beings and, according to Gregory Burns a neuroeconomist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, our brains are wired to accept the group opinion of the world. In brief, people feed off each other in a crowd. They look at each for guidance of how to behave.

Furthermore, in a crowd, individual temperaments change. Emotions rise, and we become acutely sensitised to signs of changes in the behaviour of the crowd. This is why panic and fear can spread so quickly in a crowd.

It’s also why a sense of greed can take hold of people in a crowded shopping environment. Ever been in a busy shop and bought something that a couple of days later you wondered what on earth was going through your mind when you put it in your basket? Blame the crowd.

Neuroeconomics, the relatively new area of study that pokes around in that fuzzy area where neurology, psychology and economics overlap, has identified a part of the brain that could be part of the problem. When we are in a crowd and are examining others for guidance about how to behave, this part of the brain – the posterior medial frontal cortex – becomes activated, and it triggers an automatic ‘error’ signal, resulting in an involuntary correction of our behaviour to fall in line with the expectations of the crowd. We almost become automatons.

Of course, you may argue that the idea of a crowd operating as some type of robotic unit may sound ridiculous, almost unbelievable; but it’s very real. Crowd behaviour is, to a large degree, predictable. If it weren’t the simulation of crowd behaviour, used every day by architects and urban planners to design large structures and even shape cities, would be impossible. Crowds display patterns of behaviour, and they wouldn’t be able to do so if they didn’t operate as some form of collective.

So, if you go shopping later today, and find yourself in a mass of people shuffling through a busy mall, stop and think before you buy anything. Shake your head vigorously and ask yourself if you’re thinking rationally and if you really do need it.

You never know; your brain could just be misfiring, sparked by the sway of the crowd.

Originally published in The Sunday Tribune, 18 December 2011