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The greatest show on earth

Researchers studying the largest single gathering of people on Earth may have unlocked the secret of how large communities can live together in harmony.

The psychologists from the University of St Andrews have just returned from studying the largest crowd event on earth – the 30 million strong Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Northern India.

In collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Dundee and Lancaster, Professor Steve Reicher and Dr Clare Cassidy observed crowd behaviour at the Mela, a month long Hindu festival held on the banks of the Ganges. The festival, which ends today (Friday 2nd February 2007), provides a unique setting in which to study mass psychology.

“As well as academically interesting, the Mela is visually amazing and an incredible event – like a vast biblical scene,” Professor Reicher explained.

While traditional research into crowd behaviour would assume that a large gathering of strangers would create a stressful effect, the researchers found that the nature of collective participation and shared identity appeared to have a positive effect on the crowd’s behaviour.

“Despite the fact that the Mela seems designed to increase stress in every way – it is very noisy, very unhealthy, very packed – what we found was that actually people feel serene, peaceful and unstressed. It raises very important questions about the nature of collective participation and how it can affect both individual well-being and social cohesion,” Professor Reicher said.

Professor Reicher and Dr Cassidy have been studying ‘the collective experience’ for the last three years alongside Dr Nick Hopkins of the University of Dundee and Dr Mark Levine from Lancaster University. In order to overcome the many challenges involved in investigating such an extraordinary event, they also collaborated with colleagues from a consortium of Indian Universities.

Their work overturns many common presuppositions about crowd behaviour and collective living.

Professor Reicher explained, “People become more generous, more supportive and more orderly rather than less. What is more although every feature of the Mela might seem designed to increase stress and damage welfare – it is raucous for 24 hours a day, the conditions are extremely rudimentary and people are densely packed together – people actually become less stressed and feel much better.

“While Western research has always suggested that being crowded with strangers is a bad thing, the Mela shows that crowding can be highly positive as long as we share a common sense of identity with others. The Mela is much more than a wonderful spectacle. It promises to unlock the secrets of how large communities can live together in harmony,” he continued.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

THE RESEARCHERS ARE AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW:

PROFESSOR STEVE REICHER, TEL: 01334 463057, EMAIL sdr@st-andrews.ac.uk

DR CLARE CASSIDY, TEL: 01334 462065, EMAIL cc73@st-andrews.ac.uk

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:

STUNNING IMAGES OF THE EVENT ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACTS BELOW.

Issued by Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- andrews.ac.uk

Ref: The greatest show on earth 010207.doc

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