The Economist has an interesting piece on the psychology of crowds. We excerpt the piece below.
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One researcher who is interested in this approach is Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in Britain who studies crowds. Crowds have a bad press. They have been blamed for antisocial behaviour through mechanisms that include peer pressure, mass hysteria and the diffusion of responsibility—the idea that “someone else will do something, so I don’t have to”. But Dr Levine thinks that crowds can also diffuse potentially violent situations and that crime would be much higher if it were not for crowds. As he told a symposium called “Understanding Violence,” which was organised by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland earlier this month, he has been using CCTV data to examine the bystander effect, an alleged phenomenon whereby people who would help a stranger in distress if they were alone, fail to do so in the presence of others. His conclusion is that it ain’t so. In fact, he thinks, having a crowd around often makes things better.
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Dr Levine talks of a “collective choreography” of violence, in which the crowd determines the outcome as much as the protagonist and the target do, and he is now taking his ideas into the laboratory. In collaboration with Mel Slater, a computer scientist at University College, London, he is looking at the responses of bystanders to violence recreated in virtual reality.
Dr Slater has pioneered this approach, since people seem to react to virtual reality as they do to real life, but no one gets hurt and conditions can be controlled precisely. Because the participants know it is not real, many of the ethical obstacles to placing them in such situations are removed. But Dr Slater proved the tool’s usefulness in 2006, when he used it to recreate a famous experiment conducted in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist. Milgram showed that ordinary people would obey orders to the point of delivering potentially lethal electric shocks to strangers—an experiment that, even though nobody really received any shocks, would be ruled out today, on ethical grounds. Dr Slater’s volunteers behaved similarly to Milgram’s.
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