How Crowd Psychology Impacts Event Security

John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology at University of Sussex, is one of the keynote speakers at the Event Safety Day. In this episode he shares how crowd psychology impacts event security, and more shocking how we've always done things wrong based on new findings.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi John, welcome to our studio.

Hi Kevin.

You're a professor in psychology. What does a professor in psychology have to do with events?

Well, I'm a professor of social psychology and my research specialism is crowd and group behaviour.

So, group behaviour, crowd behaviour, is highly relevant for live events. How people behave together in crowds. What are the causes or different kinds of crowd behaviour? How can different approaches in the management of crowds improve safety? And improve experience.

So, a lot of the work that I do, and other colleagues do, on crowd psychology is highly relevant for the live events industry. And for crowd safety, in particular.

Does that involve how crowds move and why they move and how you can, as an event organizer, anticipate on that?

Some of the research is on crowd flow. For example: it's been an assumption in the past, when you look at models of pedestrian behaviour, that sometimes inform planning, they tend to treat people as...

A bit like billiard balls. And they're all the same. And they just move as individuals in a mass, without really thinking about relationships.

So, things started to change when modelers started to recognize that people in a big crowd often form little sub-groups. But more than that: people, even in movement to and from locations, when they're walking along, sometimes try to stay together. In larger groups. Seeing each other as part of the same crowd. And feeling comfortable in that close proximity.

So, this work is valuable for that, because if you think of what happens in a crowd that is trying to stay together as individuals, rather than in a crowd which are just individuals, moving independently, it tends to slow down the rate of movement. So, then that's something you want to take into account in your planning.

So, some of the application is to the flow of people.

But I can also imagine that, in designing the event space or outdoor venue, whatever you use, that you also need to keep in mind how narrow or how broad passages need to be.

Yes, I guess so. I don't think that's been happening up to now. I mean: this work on the psychology of pedestrian movement is relatively new. In the past, the only planning, done around the psychology of behaviour, in pedestrian movement, was around: widths of exits and so on. So all this is relatively new. And it applies more than to pedestrian flow.

It also applies to the indoor spaces. Because if you have a capacity figure, you might tend to assume, . if you're a bit naive I suppose, that people are going to be evenly distributed around that and then you're guaranteed a person per square meter measure. The certain size that is safe.


But what happens is: there are valued spaces for your crowd. Your crowd values certain spaces. Most obviously at the front. And if it's a crowd with a strong sense of shared social identity, which is a key idea for us psychology researchers, which means people see others around them as part of the we or an us, then all the usual concerns around personal space change and people are more comfortable being in situations which you might otherwise say are unpleasant, because they're very close together. And so, they will gather in these spaces, you know, valued places. And at that point the space per person, the per meter space, becomes very, very tight. And so, if you know your crowd identity and you know their valued spaces, you know where the gathering is going to be. Where they're exceeding your safety level in terms of people per square meter. And you might want to do some planning around that. Particularly in terms of what you say to people. And where you place your spotters and your personnel.

Is there also a link with psychology in how and what you say to a crowd?

Yes, certainly. I think we need to distinguish between different psychologies, okay?

So, the psychology that I work with, that I use to train people in the crowd safety industry, is a new social psychology of groups. But if you go back fifty to a hundred years, you find other kinds of psychology which now we know are wrong. Because psychology, like all sciences, it has changed over time. And as more knowledge and evidence accumulate, it progresses. And old ideas are discarded and new ideas start to prevail.

Now, everybody works with psychology. In a way. Because we all make assumptions about other people's behaviour. And if you're running an event, you'll be making an assumption about the kind of behaviour you'd expect from the people attending your event. And that will shape the way you relate to them. The way you manage them. The way you communicate with them. What you say to them.

Now let me give you a dramatic example. Because the most dramatic example is when there is an emergency.


There's an old idea about how crowds behave in emergencies. And this old idea is very influential. Not only with practitioners, but with the members of the public. And that is: when there's an emergency...

Say that there is a fire in your venue, how will people behave? And the old assumption is that people will panic. Meaning that they become irrational. They become selfish. They lose control of their behaviour. And that leads to more deaths and injuries than the fire itself.

So, what do you do? Okay, so, what you don't do is: you don't tell them that there's a fire because you think they'll panic. But, you know, what's the danger there? The danger there then is they don't evacuate quickly enough. Because we know from decades and decades of research on fires: the reason that people die isn't panic, it's because they don't get out quickly enough. So, therefore, if it's not panic that happens, actually, it tends to be under-reaction, and if people tend to cooperate more than act selfishly, something we also know, then what do you do, as an organizer, to facilitate that? So, in all emergencies, our advice now, is that you quicken the public with information.  You give them the capacity, the confidence, the efficacy, to respond appropriately themselves. By telling them what the emergency is. Where it is. Where the exits are. You inform them. So, you see, opposite of the old psychology that you don't tell them. Because that old psychology is actually really dangerous. It's really dangerous to make those assumptions about human behaviour. And today we're saying something different. It's: communicate, right.


For that communication is something else you need to do. Which is to build your relationship with the public or build the relationship with the people that come to your event. Because they are more likely to trust what you say, to believe what you say, to internalize what you say. Whether it's an emergency or something more mundane. As in: where do you queue and how do you queue? And where the toilets are. Whatever it is. They're more likely to believe and trust what you say, if you have a good relationship. Which you build over time. To try to create a sense that we're all the same group, right? That you, the organizers, and the public, are part of the same group. Because people tend to believe in group members. More than people who aren't in their group. So, that's quite a bit of work, but it has a lot of rewards in terms of down-the-line benefits.

It is an intriguing example but I'm a little bit triggered, on how to apply this principle. Because, if you're organizing a music festival, in a typical case you never see the organizers upfront. You just buy a ticket. You get your ticket. You go to the event. You see the signs. Okay, I need to queue here and there, and so on.

But you're saying now: no, it's really important that you start building some kind of a relationship.

Do you have some examples of how you could do that? Or maybe even events who actually are already doing this?

Yes. Roskilde is a good example.

So, Roskilde is known through the industry, as a place, which in the past had tragedy. And as a place, also in the past, which had more less serious problems. It had a crushing incident, by the way. But had less serious problems, but still problems, with crowd-surfing. So, how did it engage with people coming to the event? So that they come to the event, knowing that crowd-surfing is not a norm. It's not what we do, right? We don't do that. You can't just do that on the day. I agree with you. So, they did do it in advance. So, the way they did it was through Facebook-groups. So the people coming to attend the event, they get a sense of community. Built up over months. Through Facebook-groups. That all the people coming to attend, the organizers, the volunteers, they're all members of. And within those groups, you can talk about who we are. What kind of things do we do at Roskilde festival?

They also managed to solve some of their queuing issues through the same kinds of techniques. So, building that relationship with the fans. Because the queue was a bit unruly. And through developing the relationship with them, they managed to have a more manageable queue, without the use of so many fences.

So, it can be done. It is a bit of work but I'm saying it's worth it.

But it's then the sense of belonging to the same group, the fact that you don't dare to go against what is the group knowledge or the consensus in how to behave.

Yes, at one level. Of course there are staff and there is the audience. And these are different, right? But at another level, we're all part of this festival. We are a community, part of this festival. And in psychological terms, that can be a shared social identity. And a sense of us or we that is shared by both staff and the audience. And when people identify with a group, they tend to internalize the norms, the rules, associated with the group. So, how do I, as a member of this group behave? What is the right way for me, as a member of this group, to behave? So, they don't need to be disciplined all the time. Or managed all the time. Because they've internalized it and it drives their behaviour. If you think of most events...

At most live events people do manage their own behaviour. In conformity with the norms of the event, without being micromanaged. How does that happen?


I mean, even a thing for the mega-events: you don't have staff micromanaging every member of the public. It doesn't happen. To some extent, they've internalized and they behave in the right way.

And I think a nice illustration of that is the natural experiment we've had over the recent years. I think we've all heard the stories about what's happened since the live events industry has opened up again after the lockdown. And we all know that it has been changing audience behaviour, right. And there's been more disruptive behaviour. More disrespectful behaviour. More audience members throwing things on stages. Trying to get in. We're all aware of this. What’s going on?

Well, one explanation is that there are many more new people getting involved, that haven't been socialized, into the norms of the culture of the gigs and other events than previously. So, they haven't internalized those norms and the people around them are not...

Probably haven't got the confidence now to intervene like they would have done in the past.

But normally, in a normal situation, you would have that self-management applying. Because people are conforming to what they believe the group norm is.

It's a very interesting view, John. For people who want to know more about your field of work. You will be speaking on the Event Safety Day in a couple of weeks, in Belgium. But maybe there's also a website or some other place where people can follow your work.

Yes, there's the crowd and identities website. It's got links to my publication. Some of my courses that I run. And other things of interest.

Okay, we will make sure to put those links in the show notes, so people can find them easily.

John, I really want to thank you for your time and joining us today.

It was a very insightful talk.

Okay, thanks Kevin, good to speak to you.

And you, at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.