Crowd psychology: safety in numbers


Image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by ChadCooperPhotos

The level of safety within a crowd is dependent on how much the participant identifies with the people in it, according to psychologists at Sussex University.

Researchers studying a survey of 1194 pilgrims during the 2012 Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam that attracts 3,000,000 pilgrims to Mecca every year – made the discovery through a crowd survey.

Research by psychologists Hani Alnabusi and Dr John Drury show that if participants identify with the crowd that they are part of, this promotes expectations of support. This then results in an increase in considerate behaviour and feelings of safety.


The psychologists carried out a survey of 1194 pilgrims during the Hajj of 2012 and during the live ‘hustle and bustle’ of the crowd – up to 8 people deep per square metre – participants were interviewed and asked to report their feelings of safety and their level of identification with other in the crowd.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that even though higher crowd density did have the effect of reducing feelings of safety, this was moderated by social identification with the crowd.

Those who identified strongly with the crowd felt safer as crowd density increased. This was due to an increased perception that others in the crowd were supportive.

Crowd Id

Crowd identification and the perception of support also helps to explain the differences in reported safety across national groups. Pilgrims from Arab countries and Iran reported greater safety compared to those from other countries.

The findings challenge the common perception of crowds as places of danger –

Dr Drury: “Crowds are often considered a social problem. A common view is that they are dangerous, stressful and lead to extreme or irrational behaviour. But our study shows how the crowd can be understood as part of the solution rather than just the problem. An increased expectation of social support from others in a crowd could increase considerate behaviour and thus reduce the dangers of being trampled or crushed in situations of high crowd density.” 

If we think we are safe, we probably are.


Press Release: Identifying with a crowd can increase crowd safety, Sussex study finds

“Social identification moderates the effect of crowd density on safety at the hajj,” by Hani Alnabulsi and John Drury is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States