The fear of the crowd: Why does authority really dislike people coming together?


By Utsav Mistry*

Throughout history, whether human or animal, the coming together of more than one individual to achieve objectives has been well documented. Even when early humans lived the hunter gatherer life, forming groups was essential to their survival. But the arrival of civilisation doesn’t mean our primal instincts go away. For the duration of the civilised history of humans, a collective have formed on numerous occasions, for various purposes, to celebrate, to fight and to protest. One more thing has also stayed prevalent alongside all this, is the fear of many.

Features of a crowd

What makes a human collective tick? How are higher purposes achieved by a group of highly selfish individuals with differently aligned self-interests ? Turns out that the self often dissolves when part of a group as the individual confides in the safety of numbers. This is called de-individuation in social psychology. When people de-individuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviours that a person would not typically engage in if alone. This willingness to engage in dangerous behaviours stems from the anonymity a crowd provides.

Two implications arise from it: A single person can’t be held responsible for anything and their behaviour cannot be traced to them so its acceptable to break social norms.

Protests, whether violent or non-violent, are possible due to contribution of above mentioned human tendencies. However, the same tendencies often can turn a peaceful protest into a violent one. The debate that always rages on is what kind of protests are more effective to bring the required change.

Why peaceful protests turn violent and ugly?

Protests offer a way for constituents to communicate concerns, focus attention on issues, and promote change. Unfortunately, protests can quickly turn violent. Although many people find protesting for causes that they care about liberating, it’s safe to say that most people—including police officers and government officials—would prefer to avoid violent protests.

Researchers at USC in a latest study discovered that people are more likely to promote violence when the issue at hand is being moralised. When considered in context of a group of people sharing the same morality which is considered as consensus of the group, a situation can turn explosive very quickly. The issue is suddenly turns into fight between right or wrong instead of preferences. Apart from the nature of the issue and violent proclivities of individuals, this combination of morality and moral convergence, accentuated by social media, often turns protests violent.

Once this happens, the authority uses this as a license to use violent force to suppress the movement. However, there is one more player involved whose support is most important in the battle, i.e. the common public. If violent situations start disrupting the normal routine life of the public, their support may swing towards the side which will bring normalcy the fastest. Then, it does not matter how genuine your cause is, lost public support is often the downfall of most movements.

In cases where authority attacks first, the reason is often the idea that violence is useful in suppressing threats pre-emptively when enough momentum hasn’t been gathered. This will likely develop reasonable concerns about the probability of being attacked for holding other opinions or engaging in behaviours authority finds unpleasant or dangerous.

Why non-violent protests work

Historically, non-violent campaigns have worked better then violent ones. The combined complete and partial success rate of non-violent movements is 73% while those of violent ones is around 33%.

The cause for effectiveness of non-violent efforts, is that when a dispute arises, those involved in the dispute find themselves in a state of transient need for social support since numbers can decide the outcome of the conflict. Meanwhile in a violent protest, property is destroyed, people are attacked, and the ability of regular citizens to go about their lives is disrupted by violence. The net result of that violence is now that third parties side against the protesters, rather than with them. A nonviolent protest does not create destruction the part of those it targets; it doesn’t destroy property or harm people. If the protesters have needs they want to see met and they aren’t inflicting costs on others, this can yield more support for the protester’s side.

In the interests of persuading authority nonviolence is usually the better first step. However, nonviolence alone is not enough, especially if the authority is nonviolent as well. Not being violent does not mean dispute has been won; just that it is not lost. It is also important to convince others that the needs are legitimate, demands reasonable, and it positions in their interests as well, all while authority attempts to be persuasive themselves. It’s just the best way forward.


*Second year student at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad





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