This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.
Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: Crowd

Ultimate Guide to Villains and Antagonists: Crowd

Crowds can be dangerous, fickle, temperamental, and, worst of all, easily manipulated. It doesn’t take much to whip a crowd of rational individuals into a frenzied mob. When people get together, the “herd mentality” tends to kick in and causes people to do things they would never have considered in real life. Crowds can turn riotous and violence with far less incitement than individuals ever would.

Crowds: The Origin

For as long as people have lived near each other, there has existed the threat of the crowd. A group of peaceful people exchanging ideas can quickly grow into a heated debate as more and more voices join in, until it grows large enough that the debate turns angry, violent, then riotous. A single disagreement between two individuals can turn into a full-scale barroom brawl in a matter of seconds. There is an entire field of study dedicated to crowd psychology, or the “mob mentality”. Studies have found that just a 5% minority can sway the other 95% of a crowd to follow instinctively, all thanks to this crowd-think (decisions based on the actions of others in a crowd) that overtakes the human mind when we are in a large group of people. Crowds have been divided into a number of different “types”. One scholar defined them as:
  • Casual
  • Conventional
  • Expletive
  • Aggressive
Another distinguished them as:
  • Spectator
  • Demonstrator
  • Escaping
Mobs are more “active” crowds—crowds that are aggressive, escapist, acquisitive (looters), or expressive. Aggressive mobs tend to be violent and outwardly focused. Escapist mobs are large crowds trying to flee or escape a dangerous situation. Expressive mobs tend to gather for an active purpose, such as attending a rock concert, protest, revival, or rally. Passive mobs tend to be conversational and act as spectators, and rarely are violent or volatile. There are many theories as to why crowd mentality exists:
  • Gustave LeBon held that people in crowds tend to lose their individual sense of self, thus their personal responsibility for their actions is lost as well. They are also more open to suggestion, and they tend to feel emotions more strongly as part of a “shared unconscious”.
  • Freud posited that being a part of a crowd unlocked the “unconscious”. The ego is displaced by the size of the crowd, and simplistic emotions (anger, hate, fear, etc.) are more easily spread. The emotional experience trends toward the lowest common denominator.
  • Deindividuation theory states that group unity, anonymity, and arousal (of emotions) can weaken the self-evaluation, shame, and guilt that typically control our behavior in public. This leads to a lack of restraint and can distance people from their personal identities, leading to a decrease in rational forethought and antisocial behavior.
  • Convergence theory believes that the crowd is formed by a union of like-minded individuals. People in a crowd behave as they always would, just “more so”. The actions are simply affirmed, reinforced, and intensified by the crowd.
  • Emergent norm theory suggests that people start to act in line with those around them so as to fit in. Key members of the crowd (the 5% influencers) suggest or model appropriate actions, and those actions become the “norm” for the crowd at large.
  • Social identity theory states that our actions “depend on which group membership (or non-membership) is most personally salient at the time of action”. Basically, we have a subconscious or unconscious desire to fit in and identify with the crowd, so we model our actions on those around us. Or, the values of the “group” to which the crowd belongs (i.e. a Christian revival, a student demonstration, a pride parade, etc.) dictates the values and ultimately the behavior of those who become part of the crowd.
Whatever the reason behind the crowds forming, it’s clear that once rational people become part of a larger collective of individuals, that sense of individuality and rational thinking tends to decrease and “crowd-think” (and crowd-actions) ultimately take over. Pacifistic crowds can turn violent in the space of a few minutes. With the right (or wrong) influence, a crowd can be swayed to do all manner of things no intelligent human being would ever consider alone. Thus, the crowd is as dangerous as it is fickle!

In stories

A classic example of this would be in the Bible, when Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the choice of executing Jesus Christ or Barabbas, an insurrectionary. The crowd that was protesting Jesus’ innocence minutes earlier ultimately clamored for Barabbas to be released—likely due to influence from the religious leaders and zealots guiding the crowd’s behavior. Other examples include:
  • “Kill the Beast!”, that famous song/scene from Beauty and the Beast, where fear of the monstrous creature and adoration of Gaston caused the villagers to attack Beast’s castle.
  • Frankenstein has another excellent example, when a crowd of scared villagers attacks Frankenstein’s lab to destroy the monster.
  • Maskerade by Terry Pratchett parodied mob mentality by including a discussion on “angry mob etiquette”—i.e. “lanterns for chasing smugglers and torches for chasing monsters”.