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The Lure of a Crowd: How We Are Wired to Connect

Despite complaints about lines, noise, and traffic, people like to be together.

When sitting in rush hour traffic or standing in line at the store, crowded conditions are probably not topping your wish list. But when thinking about your favorite outings, often, they are. If your list includes baseball games, the beach, church, concerts, or even shopping malls, there is a common denominator. Consider: what is it about those experiences you find enjoyable?

Sure, it’s fun to watch sports, but you could do that from home. You could shop online too, and listen to a concert from your computer or smart phone; it would be the same music. Apparently, according to research, as much as we complain about lines, traffic, and crowds, experiences are more fun with the energy created by the presence of other people—whether we know them or not.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Collective Effervescence

Shira Gabriel et al. (2020) explain the importance of living in community using the concept of collective effervescence—defined as “the sense of connection and meaning that comes from collective events.”[i] Their research reveals that this concept is useful to appreciate how “everyday events” consisting of “common collective gatherings” can create a sense of connectedness, meaning, and life satisfaction.

In a series of studies involving over 2500 participants, they found, among other things, that collective effervescence can be understood as “a combination of feeling connected to others and a sensation of sacredness” present in ordinary, common events, related to the enjoyment of activities performed in groups. How often do we experience this? Gabriel et al. found that three-quarters of people enjoy experiences of collective effervescence at least once per week, and one third enjoy them daily. In addition, they explain that collective effervescence predicts personal well-being beyond the benefits of other types of social connection.

From the Momentous to the Mundane

Sure, a political rally or an organized protest solidifies attendees around a common cause. But what about routine activities? According to research, the same principle applies here. And think about it, how much fun would it be to go to the beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon . . . if you were the only one there? Would you want to be the only person in a shopping mall, or a football stadium? How about dining at your favorite (empty) restaurant? These visuals resemble scenes from end-of-the-world disaster movies rather than an ideal day off of work, and demonstrate how we apparently cherish even the company of strangers.

Sure enough, in discussing prior research on the issue of collective activities, Gabriel et al. note that collective bonds can impact personal well-being even in the absence of relationships among members of the group. Conversely, they note that research indicates that ostracism, defined as “being ignored or excluded by others,” is psychologically painful even in the absence of interpersonal bonds-- in other words, when the perpetrators are strangers.

Gabriel et al. note that connections to what they term “collectives” impact personal wellbeing in a fashion that transcends the effects of friendship. They conclude that “a feeling of social connection is essential for wellbeing and there is evidence that engaging with collectives can increase wellbeing due to the fulfillment of social needs.” This engagement can be accomplished through collective effervescence. In their words, “collective effervescence doesn’t separate the sacred from the profane, it turns the everyday profane into the meaningful and sacred.”

The Bonding Power of Emotion

Other research has revealed similar findings. Dario Páez, et al. (2015)[ii] found that collective gatherings enhanced a sense of collective identity, social integration, self-esteem both personally and collectively, as well as positive affect and positive social beliefs. Their results were mediated by what they describe as “emotional communion” or a perception of being in emotional synchrony with other participants.

Their study examined the positive effects of participation in either positively or negatively valenced events—folkloric marches or protest demonstrations respectively. Yet the feelings experienced by participants were consistent: a higher degree of perceived emotional synchrony was associated with “stronger emotional reactions, stronger social support, and higher endorsement of social beliefs and values.”

Taken together, this research explains why we enjoy many of the activities we do, and the value of collective energy and a sense of belonging experienced when we are together.


[i] Gabriel, Shira, Esha Naidu, Elaine Paravati, C. D. Morrison, and Kristin Gainey. 2020. “Creating the Sacred from the Profane: Collective Effervescence and Everyday Activities.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 15 (1): 129–54. doi:10.1080/17439760.2019.1689412.

[ii] Páez, Dario, Bernard Rimé, Nekane Basabe, Anna Wlodarczyk, and Larraitz Zumeta. 2015. “Psychosocial Effects of Perceived Emotional Synchrony in Collective Gatherings.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108 (5): 711–29. doi:10.1037/pspi0000014.