Understanding crowds

Emerging in the late 19th century and pioneered by the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon, crowd psychology aims to explain why people behave as they do in groups. Thanks to research our understanding of crowds have moved on from Le Bon's view of the 'mob mind' drowning out people's sense of self and responsibility.

Policymakers and police have traditionally assumed that crowds might panic or become helpless, which led to forceful – and impractical - 'command and control' policies. More recent research has uncovered that what happens in a crowd is much more complex.

New approaches to crowd psychology are now helping police manage the potential for conflict in crowds. Building on ESRC-funded PhD research, Dr Clifford Stott and colleagues at the University of Leeds developed a model of crowd conflict now widely viewed as the leading psychological theory of its kind.

Dr Stott's research showed  that crowds can be managed more effectively when the police concentrate on enabling lawful behaviour - such as protests - rather than merely trying to control criminal behaviour through fear and force. In other words, if police interact with people in a friendly and proportionate manner, then they can prevent conflict. Today, Dr Stott's ideas permeate police training and policy as well as the recent introduction of new police 'liaison units' designed to avoid conflict through dialogue.