The Psychology of Crowds, Protests, and Riots

Recent findings on crowd psychology are reviewed.

Posted Oct 11, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 RJA1988/Pixabay
Source: RJA1988/Pixabay

In an article published in the October 2020 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology, John Drury of the University of Sussex reviews recent findings on the psychology of crowds. The present article will be a selective review of these findings as they relate to the psychology of protests and riots.

Recent events have increased public interest in the psychology of protests and riots.

This summer, we saw protests and demonstrations against police brutality toward African-Americans and other minorities.

The protests began after the death of an African-American man named George Floyd. Floyd died after a Caucasian police officer, Derek Chauvin, appeared to kneel on his neck for a long time while arresting him. The video of the incident, which shows Floyd repeatedly saying he cannot breathe, caused public outrage.

The protests turned violent in some places, resulting in riots and looting. Meanwhile, as the police and the military tried to control the crowds, more instances of police brutality were caught on tape.

But violent protests have not been limited to racial justice movements. For instance, anti-mask protests occurred frequently early during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown orders. Most recently, after new lockdown orders in New York, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jews have been protesting and clashing with the police.

Regardless of the cause, an important question regarding riots and protests is what happens to people, on a psychological level, when they join protest movements? How do protest groups influence the identity of individuals? And what happens when people engage in violent protest or confront the police?

To answer some of these questions, let us examine a model of how conflicts between crowds and the police start and escalate.

Crowd psychology: The elaborated social identity model

According to the elaborated social identity model, conflicts between the crowd and the police emerge when the following two conditions are met:

1. Asymmetrical categorical representations: Both the crowd and the police view their own actions as legitimate and the actions of the other as illegitimate.

2. Asymmetrical power relations: The police are able to impose their view of what is legitimate on crowd participants (e.g., through superior technology or organization).

The model also suggests when actions by the police are perceived as treating all members of the crowd in the same negative way, particularly if these actions are seen as illegitimate (e.g., police brutality), the result is an extension of the sense of collective identity in the crowd. In other words, this unifies the previously heterogeneous crowd in their opposition to the police.

This is associated with a number of psychological changes in crowd participants.

Crowd identity changes

One change concerns the content of identity. For instance, if “moderates” who are protesting racial injustice are seen as “radicals” by the police and the subject of police brutality, then moderates might see themselves as radicals as well. When they do, they might begin to consider true radicals (e.g., those trying to provoke the police) as part of their larger group too. This results in an expansion of group boundaries.

People in this bigger group might experience greater empowerment, too, especially if there is a sense that members can rely on mutual support as they face the police force, now the enemy.

When the collective identity changes, as above, sometimes the group’s goals change too. If the initial goal was protesting against racism or police brutality, the new aim might become overpowering the police in order to defend the right to protest. In this way, legitimacy may also be redefined, and crowd members begin to view their own violent actions as legitimate forms of self-defense.

Predicting riots

So, it seems the actions and reactions of the crowd and the police could quickly escalate to dangerous levels and give rise to rioting.

A good predictor of rioting in one location, Drury observes, is rioting elsewhere. This is because of two different mechanisms, involving strategy and collecting identity.

 metaliza01/Pixabay
Source: metaliza01/Pixabay

One way people, including groups, influence each other involves collective identity—who we are and what we should do. So, when rioting is taking place elsewhere, it serves as a signal that rioting behavior is acceptable by other people who share the same collective identity.

Another method involves rioting as a strategy and is related to the perceived vulnerability of the police. Since rioting is usually prevented by the police, the fact that a riot is taking place somewhere can be seen as a signal that the police are weak.

Long-term influence of protests and riots on identity

Sometimes the identity changes people experience after participating in protests have long-term consequences. Drury notes these changes may be objective (e.g., changes to family and marital status, consumer behavior, work-life balance) and/or subjective (e.g., legitimacy, radicalization, empowerment, self-esteem).

For example, previous research has shown that when compared with non-protesters, people who participated in the 1960s anti-war protests had fewer children and were overall less likely to have children. Activism affects one’s choice of careers, as well. In general, after participating in protests, people are more likely to “choose jobs in the knowledge, social, and creative area.”

A positive view of crowd psychology

Let me end with some positive aspects of crowd psychology.

Despite the negative consequences of riots and looting, and the general unease regarding any sort of crowds during the current COVID-19 epidemic, the psychology of protests and crowds also suggests that mass gatherings—be they to protest injustice, to express joy (e.g., after a game), or to gather for religious purposes (e.g., the Hajj)—could have positive effects. In fact, participating in mass gatherings can be associated with powerful collective emotions, such as self-confidence and pride. As research on religious mass gatherings has shown, positive emotions may be experienced due to a sense of recognition of one’s views, validation of one’s values, and a sense of solidarity in giving and receiving support.