The Madness of Crowds – London Edition

August 8th, 2011 | Posted by edmanley in Cities | Cognition and Behaviour | London

‘The Madness of Crowds’ was a book written by Charles MacKay in 1841, describing the formation of crowd behaviours such as hysteria, economic bubbles and mass panic.  MacKay was among the first to begin to describe widespread phenomena that exist beyond the realm of individual rationality, phenomena that only exist through the interaction of crowds.  One particularly prescient quote may be as follows:

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

It appears to me that, in trying to understand and explain what has happened in London over the last few days, the press and politicians have forgotten this basic principle of crowd behaviour.

We all know that rioting and looting is a criminal activity (thanks for pointing that out Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson), but it is now taking place within an environment of acceptance and normality, an environment that has developed extremely quickly.  Within these social networks, existing across the intertwined ‘real’ and online worlds, there persists an ongoing idea, for whatever reason, that this behaviour should be taking place.  This is clearly dangerous and irrational, but it is an idea that remains.  Instead of calming the situation, I suspect that the threat of heavy policing and criminal prosecution is inflammatory, riling the crowd and encouraging them to go to further lengths.

In trying to understand these situations, people look to establish the drivers of this behaviour – the shooting that prompted the anger, or Twitter being used a platform for communication.  But this misses the point.  Rioting doesn’t need a cause, it is an irrational herding behaviour, where new norms are established quickly.

The ending of this behaviour must come from the base up.  Individuals – probably many of whom are normally decent and functioning members of society – must realise for themselves that what they are doing is wrong.

Unfortunately, this realisation, with the supporting infrastructure of online social networks maintaining this irrationality, may come later rather than sooner.

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