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A Psychologist Explains What the Crowds at the Inauguration Say About America

We spoke to Stephen Reicher, an expert in crowd psychology.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jan 20 2017, 7:20pm

Anti-Trump protesters stand during a demonstration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Image: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The inauguration of President Donald Trump has attracted huge crowds to the nation's capital—but many people are there in protest, not celebration.

With thousands of people cheering, while thousands of others chant, the tension is rising. There's a lot of folk psychology around the groupthink that can happen in large crowds, but what does the actual science say, and what can it tell us about the groups descending on D.C.?

I reached out to Stephen Reicher, an expert in group behavior and a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to talk about whether crowds really make us lose our inhibitions, whether violence is an inevitability, and how these groups show we're more divided than ever:

What does research tell us about crowd psychology?
There are two versions of crowd psychology. The traditional view is the notion that what happens in crowds is people lose their sense of self, their sense of rationality, and they turn into a mob. But most recent research argues that what happens in crowds is, in a sense, we switch from our sense of self as an individual to our sense of selves as members of particular groups, and act within the values and norms of those groups.

What can that tell us about these groups: the Trump supporters and the Trump protesters?
It's not that all crowds behave in one way or another, but crowds tell you something about the cultures of groups. What it's telling you, in part, in the United States at the moment is that you have a very divided culture. You have two cultures, and those cultures aren't coming together.

Is that anything new, though?
In the past, those cultures were transcended—at least temporarily—for the inauguration. When you look at the approval ratings for nearly every president, they go sky-high briefly around the inauguration. With Trump, what is remarkable is his approval ratings have gone down. There is not a sense that people are coming together to say, 'whatever you think of him as an individual, whatever you think of him as representing a particular party, you can come together to support him as president.' That moment has not occurred on this occasion because, I think, of profound senses of illegitimacy.

A sense that Trump is illegitimate?
This is very emblematic. Those who are anti-Trump, they see Trump himself, and his supporters, as illegitimate—racist, misogynist, irrational. But equally for Trump supporters, those who protest are disrespecting not just Trump but the office of president, and they have proved themselves to be un-American and therefore are apart from a legitimate community of debate.

We're seeing some reports of rioting, and smashing windows—why does this seem to so often happen with large groups?
The problem is we think the conflict lies in the very nature of groups, that crowds are inherently violent. But if you were to have 100 games of football on a Saturday afternoon and there was violence at one, but no violence at 99, which one would appear in the media the next day? 'Small Crowd, No Violence' is not a headline. So we radically overestimate the levels of conflict.

And you can find examples of crowds being incredibly non-violent, not all crowds are violent and it's not even clear that crowds are more likely to be violent than people on their own. You need to look much more specifically at the norms and the beliefs associated with particular groups.

So what can we take away from all of this?
Don't dismiss crowds as simply mad. Don't say that they are mindless because they don't do what you think people should do. Often, we understand our society, our culture, and its problems very deeply by looking at crowds. They tell us something. It might be unwelcome, but if we ignore it, those problems come back to haunt us.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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