Every Monday I have to fight through the huddled masses congregating on Oxford Street in order to get to a class. Whilst the crowd is pretty fervent throughout the year, at Christmas it is especially so. I’m sure the experience is an all too familiar one for anyone trying to squeeze onto a rush hour train or tube. One would think it rare to find anyone that actually enjoys such an environment, but a team of British psychologists believe they have.
They found that some people not only enjoy such densely packed areas, but actively seek out such environments. The petri dish for their experiment was the huddled masses at a Fatboy Slim music concert in Brighton and a protest march for the NHS.
They found that social identity played a major role in the relative enjoyment of the experience. For instance, if you identify strongly with the others in the crowd, the researchers believe you will therefore seek ever denser aggregations of likeminded souls.
The Fatboy Slim gig for instance attracted 250,000 people to Brighton beach to see the DJ strut his stuff. The bigger the fan of his music however, the less crowded you felt.
“That was a very crowded event indeed. Yet, among our survey participants, the more they defined themselves as part of the crowd the less likely they were to report feeling too crowded.” the researchers said.
It’s an interesting finding because our urban environments are generally getting busier and busier. The general thinking previously has been that people need a certain amount of personal space to feel comfortable, but this research suggests that this may not in fact be the case, providing a shared identity can be had between members of the crowd.
“There is an idea in psychology that we have a relatively fixed need for ‘personal space’. This would mean that other people are inevitably a threat to our comfort.
“But this wrongly assumes that we each have just one identity – a personal identity. Our findings are part of a body of work that shows that we have multiple identities based on our group memberships.
“The salience of different identities varies according to social context. At those times when people share a social identity with us, their presence is not an invasion of our space at all. They are not ‘other’ – they are ‘us’.” the researchers say.
So shoppers on Oxford Street might not mind the crush, providing they’re all there for shopping. When you’re there to get to a class however it becomes a rather annoying irritation.