Crowds are groups of people who are together for short periods of time. The study of crowd behavior examines the actions that people in a crowd perform and how these actions differ from the behavior of individuals acting alone. Crowd behavior became a focus of scholarly thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in reaction to the social turmoil in Western Europe at that time. Italian criminologist Scipio Sighele (18681913) firstwrote about crowd behavior. French psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), the founder of crowd psychology, formalized and popularized the concept with his book The Crowd, published in 1895. Le Bon's ideas reached a wide audience and are said to have influenced German dictator Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as well as psychologists. Because crowds have performed many senseless and destructive acts, both historically and recently, understanding crowd behavior remains extremely important for psychologists.
The term "crowd" refers to a wide spectrum of human gatherings, varying in their complexity and the intention with which people join them. Some crowds are casual; people come together by happenstance (as a group of pedestrians standing on a sidewalk.) These tend to be simple, disorganized groups of people who do not know one another and will probably not see one another again. Others are conventionalized—the people have all chosen a common activity (for example, watching a parade or a sporting event) and express excitement in standard ways (cheering). Some crowds are purposive, choosing to be together for a common goal, such as a rally or political protest. These groups are often highly cohesive and highly organized.
Because crowds differ so much in their composition, organization, and purpose, there is also considerable variation in typical crowd behavior. Popular and scholarly attention has tended to focus on the situations in which crowd behavior is considered problematic. In these situations, the crowd often has an unusual problem to solve rapidly (for example, how to respond to a hostile police force). The occurrence of riots and violence attest to the fact that these sorts of problems are not always solved constructively by crowds. Crowds, of course, are capable of behaving in positive ways as well.
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