Based at the University of Sussex, Professor John Drury is an experienced social psychologist specialising in crowd behaviour. His recent work includes a DCMS-commissioned piece for the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on reopening events with audiences, and crowd safety management advice for festivals including the 115,000-capacity Roskilde. Here he outlines the mental health benefits of being among a crowd at a real-world event. 

I have been studying people’s behaviour and experiences at crowd events for nearly 30 years. This has included live music events, sporting occasions, religious festivals, rallies and protests, and national ceremonies. These investigations have enabled us to understand the emotional importance of many kinds of live event.

People come to live events because they want to experience them with other people who feel the same way as they do. They put up with all sorts of inconvenience and sacrifices to have this kind of experience – including travelling distances, the financial cost, the time required, queuing, and so on. All this is worth it for the experience that comes from being among like-minded others at a live event you value.

When we ask people about what they enjoy about a live event, they use words like ‘atmosphere’, ‘excitement’ and ‘energy’. They’re referring not just to the performers in the music, sports or arts event, but to the emotional and behavioural responses of others in the crowd. They mean that others enjoyed the event and expressed that enjoyment, and that the enjoyment was shared.

Emotions are not just internal states but ways of interacting with others. At the exciting and atmospheric events, people smile at each other, meet each other’s eyes, and they cheer, clap or put their hands in the air together at the same points, sharing an understanding of the best moments. They also talk to each other, even if they’ve never met each other before. In such an event, interaction with strangers becomes easier and more enjoyable than in everyday life.

We found all these elements and more in our study of the Big Beach Boutique II; a free concert on Brighton beach in 2002 that was headlined by Fatboy Slim and attended by 250,000 people. The sheer size and scale of the event, the uniqueness of it, added to the sense of occasion. Some described it as the best event of their lives. It was a somewhat chaotic event, though, and some people had negative experiences.

The collective behaviour of the event attendees helped avoid what could have been a disaster due to overcrowding. Spontaneous crowd self-regulation included people working together to avoid crushes, to provide people with relative privacy when they needed to go to the toilet, and the calm collective handling of drunk and disorderly behaviour.

As part of my work with event industry professionals on using psychology to enhance crowd safety, I’ve also shown how the same principles – as described above – can be used to enhance atmosphere and so add value to your event.

Recent research on live events suggests that there are three key elements to the positive emotional experience that comes from being with like-minded others.

  • Validation – seeing others react emotionally the same way as me confirms the validity of my feelings. This is especially important, of course, if those feelings that are not shared or are hidden in everyday life.
  • Recognition – being seen as one of the group by other ingroup members feels good.
  • A consistent finding is that people feel supported by others at events where they share identity with others. This makes them feel safe and secure.

There is now extensive evidence showing that groups are good for our mental and physical health. This is not just a matter of lifting people’s spirits. The economic costs of mental ill health in England have been estimated at £105 billion a year. Through bringing joy, live events make a vital contribution to both our emotional and our economic wellbeing.

This article was published in the January edition of Access All Areas, which is available here.

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