Tuesday, 4 January 2011

City stillness: can we get rid of all the people?

Back on the commute today. Back with the millions of other people. With the football fans battling to cross the streets, while the everyday pedestrians look on despairingly. Luckily, I’ve got a newly updated iPod, finally filled with my own, somewhat diverse and at times questionable taste in music. So I could keep myself happily distracted.

But I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic difference to the experience of commuting that I had last week. When there was no one around. When most sensible people were still tucked away snugly in their family homes in front of a roaring fire. In fact, leaving the house to go to work last week (29-31st December) felt a lot like the opening scene of ‘28 days later’. Silence. Stillness.

The most beautiful thing about the lack of people was that everyone was so unbelievably polite and gracious. Strangers in the street were being so kind. Letting me on the bus before them. Literally stepping back to let me pass. For anyone that doesn’t live in London and commute with the rest of us, let me tell you that this is literally ground-breaking behaviour. I’ve never seen such human courtesy abounding in this city.

So why? What caused such a change?

I believe it’s to do with group psychology. French social psychologist Gustave le Bon wrote about this effect in 1895. He describes crowds as mobs in which individuals lose their personal consciences. When there are so few people around, you have to take full accountability for your behaviour. You can no longer hide behind the masses. It’s almost as if we reverted in those very quiet mornings of last week to the typical culture and charms of a country village. You look people in the eye, notice what they’re wearing. And because you’ve taken note of them as a fellow human, you treat them with more respect.

Many people have looked into the group mindset; see a strong summary of the psychology in this area here. Personally I studied this very closely during my MSc in war & Psychiatry. My research dissertation was entitled ‘The psychology of groups underlying and motivating terrorist behaviour.’ I explored how the power of the ‘group’ can overwhelm individual mindsets to such a great extent that it can lead people into terrorist groups and cult-like behaviour.

But on a smaller scale? In the city of London every day? Surely we’re not all terrorists because we squeeze ourselves onto trains like sardines, pushing anyone aside who dares to get in our way, or ignore weaker passengers because we’re late and need to get to work on time too?

Imagine a group of innocent protestors or a crowd of passionate football supporters. They start the day pleasantly, singing, shouting, in an excited and vibrant mood. If things take a turn for the worse, and the group mindset takes over from the individual, you can quite quickly end up with a dangerous and violent mob of angry hooligans. The switch might only take a few minutes. And it’s much, much more difficult to deal with.

Are the individuals in that crowd the same? Absolutely. If you met them alone, would they be scary or violent? Probably not. It’s the mass that takes control; the individuals are left behind. If you interviewed each person afterwards, most would regret the violence and explain that they didn’t want anything bad to happen.

So, how can we avoid it?

On the individual scale: take responsibility for who you are and what you do. Look people in the eye. Remind yourself that you’re human and so are they. They’re faced with similar situations. They have families, bosses and stresses too. Show them the respect you’d like them to pay you. And if you’re really stuck, picture yourself in a country village, where honeysuckle creeps over houses, the postman knows your children’s names and street parties are the talk of the summer.

On the group scale: now this is more complex. I’ll keep reflecting on this one. It might be that we can change culture through subliminal messages, like these blog posts, like further research, like films and books about the topic. But that doesn’t feel very practical does it? What about slogans and messages on tubes and in football grounds or other stadiums encouraging people to look at others in the crowd as individuals? E.g. “Find out one thing about the person behind/ in front of you?” When we make connections with others we remind ourselves that we’re individuals in the mass. Humans again.

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