bird s eye view of group of people

Crowds and Theories on Collective Behavior

This post will look at various types of crowds that we often find ourselves a part of at different times. In addition, we will look at two theories that attempt to explain the collective behavior that happens when crowds form.


A crowd is a group of people who are close to each other. There are several types of crowds. A casual crowd is a group of people who are together but not really interacting with each such as what one would find in a shopping mall. In the shopping mall, there are lots of people, but the interaction among the people is often limited to small groups.

A conventional crowd is a group of people who come together for a scheduled event. A common example of a conventional crowd would be people coming together for a religious service. In such an environment, the people have a general-purpose. There is generally more interaction because of the unity that a religious experience can often bring people.


An expressive crowd is a crowd that is together for an emotional purpose. Examples of expressive crowds can include such things as weddings and funerals. Lastly, an acting crowd is a crowd that comes together for a specific purpose or goal, such as a sporting event. Of course, these categories are artificial, and maybe an event may not fit neatly in anyone exclusively, but they do provide a way to organize large groups of people.

When people find themselves in crowds, they often exhibit the group’s norms, which is called collective behavior. For example, a perfectly rational individual will begin to act emotionally in a charismatic religious experience or will become violent within the context of a riot.

Emergent Theory

Several theories have attempted to explain how norms in crowds develop. Emergent norm theory states that people react to the crowd they are in with their own norms, which change as the crowd responds to different stimuli. For example, suppose people are angry and frustrated with the government. In that case, the group may believe that breaking and burning things is acceptable. Outsiders consider this lawbreaking, but for the people within the crowd, this is justifiable behavior in the face of injustice. In other words, the emergent theory attempts to explain that the behavior of a crowd is not irrational and unpredictable but rather a logical response to the current situation.

An example of such behavior can be found in the protesting in the US. People got together and began to break into buildings and steal and destroy property. Things individuals would have never done by themselves were brazenly done in a justified manner due to the perception of injustice.

Value-Added Theory

Value-added theory states that several conditions must be present for collective behavior as found in a crowd can take place.

  1. The first is structural conduciveness which means that people are aware of a problem and begin to gather together.
  2. The second is a structural strain which is people developing frustration over the unsolved problem.
  3. Third is growth and spread of disbelief which means the problem is clearly defined and blame is placed on an individual or group.
  4. The fourth condition is called precipitating factors, which is a trigger event that leads to collective behavior.
  5. The fifth condition is mobilization which involves the emergence of leaders to guide the crowd.
  6. The final condition is social control, and this involves the process of ending the collective behavior.

The protesting that has taken place in the US can also be explained from the perspective of value-added theory. A group of people gather together over a perceived injustice, they begin to get angry, they blame the people in positions of power, some starts to break, burn or steal something, more people follow this example and chaos breaks out, only after a time are the authorities able to end the carnage.

These conditions do not have to happen linearly, but most must be present for collective behavior to begin. For example, leaders can emerge at the beginning rather than the fifth condition.


The theories above try to explain from different viewpoints a phenomenon that most of us have experienced: the loss of self when moving in a crowd. The behavior of such crowds does not have to be negative, but it is negative behavior that is easier to notice compared to positive action. In whatever case, these theories do provide some insight into what can be a blessing or a curse.

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