When I moved to a small city a few years ago, after living for twenty years in a very small town, I noticed I felt an upsurge in creativity. I had been living in an isolated mountain valley and believed the peace and quiet were conducive to creativity, so this feeling surprised me. It was if I could feel the energy of the people around me. I thought maybe it was specific to the city I had moved to, which is a creative place, but after reading an interesting article in the February 2014 National Geographic I’ve changed my mind.
“Karma of the Crowd,” by Laura Spinney, is about the beneficial aspects of being around large groups of people, and uses as an example the large annual religious festival in India called Maha Kumbh Mela. I’ve always heard of the negative effects of crowds like mob mentality, but as Spinney writes,
There’s an energy coming off this crowd, a sense that it amounts to more than the sum of its parts. The French 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim coined a phrase for it: collective effervescence. He was convinced it had a positive impact on individuals’ health. His ideas were sidelined during the mass violence of the 20th century, but perhaps he was on to something. Have crowds been misunderstood?
In the West there’s a pervasive idea that when people congregate, they surrender their individual identity, along with their ability to reason and behave morally—some of the very qualities that make us human.
“What our research shows is that, actually, crowds are critical to society,” says psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. “They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they even help determine our physical well-being.”
One group Reicher studied were elderly people who went for the entire festival, called kalpwasis. He assessed their health before and after the pilgrimage, along with a representative sample of people in the same village who did not go. He found a significant improvement in health among the kalpwasis.
A colleague of Reicher’s, Nick Hopkins, says that the benefits flow from a shared identity:
You think it terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I.’ What happens is a fundamental shift from seeing people as other to seeing them as intimate.
Support is given and received, competition turns to cooperation, and people are able to realize their goals in a way they wouldn’t be able to alone. That elicits positive emotions that make them not only more resilient to hardship but also healthier.
Spinney points out there are differences in crowds. A purely physical crowd, like that on a subway, does not have this effect. It’s a psychological crowd that forms a shared identity.
‘Belonging to the crowd can change the way you see the world,’ says Reicher’s colleague, psychologist Mark Levine of the University of Exeter in the UK. ‘It can alter your perception.’ In interviews kalpwasis often described the noise of the mela as blissful. ‘It’s God’s name ringing in your ears,’ said one. ‘The noise?’ said another. ‘Oh, this is the real Saraswati.’
There was a stampede at the train station one day in 2013 at the festival, killing 36 people. But, the sociologists say, this was as people were leaving, when the spell of the crowd was broken. They were no longer psychologically linked.
In 2001 the percentage of people living in cities crossed the 50% line—more than half the world’s population is now urban. Spinney writes,
In 2007 a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences made the case that as the population of a city increases, the degree of social interaction in that city increases too, only faster—with positive effects on the creation of everything from art to knowledge to wealth. “There is a 10 to 15 percent extra benefit, on average,” says sociologist Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, one of the paper’s authors. “So there is a strong social force driving us toward living together.”
Urbanization has so often been portrayed as a negative—crowding, increased crime, more anonymity and less connection—and rural bucolic life as a more positive, natural, healthy way to live. Perhaps that perception is all wrong.
It seems to me that the future of the planet could well depend on our continuing to group ourselves into cities. The vertical farm conceives of skyscrapers within cities producing all the food the city’s inhabitants need. City life is in general more energy-efficient than rural living. As two obvious examples: higher use of public transportation and apartment buildings rather than single-family homes. Some environmentalists envision moving everyone into cities and creating huge expanses of wilderness to allow the planet to heal.
But cities on their own don’t provide the vital ingredient of a psychological crowd: the feeling of oneness. Perhaps some of the vibrancy of a big city like New York comes from the shared sense of identity of being a New Yorker. But what could we create if we figured out how to feel a shared identity like the pilgrims at the festival—we’re all in this together?