Social Norms

This Psychological Concept Explains Why You Love Being Part of a Crowd

Think back to the euphoric moments you've experienced in your life. Maybe you recall dancing into the wee morning hours at a music festival, celebrating your favorite baseball team's World Series win, attending Comic-Con for the very first time, or marching for a cause you support alongside millions of passionate individuals. Whatever it was, chances are good that it involved a crowd. These moments fulfill our human need for interconnection and belonging in a way that dancing, spectating, or protesting alone cannot match.

Lose Yourself in the Music

The joyful intoxication you feel during a shared experience was coined "collective effervescence" by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his 1912 book, "The Elementary Forms of Religious Life."  The target of Durkheim's research was religion, but it applies to concerts, disasters, protests, and even cults. All of these types of environments can transport people outside of themselves to create an exciting, unified feeling within the group.

For Durkheim, the economic and social changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution led people in urban society to lose their sense of solidarity with one another. Ancient and medieval people had to live in rigid, highly structured societies — they mostly didn't choose what culture to identify with, what religion to follow, or even what trade to practice. For ancient and medieval people, collective effervescence was an evolutionary survival tool that kept society from falling apart.

Modern people living in democratic societies have far fewer restrictions, which necessarily leads to people with different lifestyles and worldviews inhabiting the same geographic area. This means collective effervescence has a tendency to become rarer and rarer over time, and we put increasing importance on the things that inspire that feeling as a result.

Collective effervescence can also serve to unite people during unfortunate circumstances. In 2017, SUNY Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel created the Tendency for Effervescent Assembly Measure, or TEAM, scale, and had volunteers rate statements like: "Having giant blizzards or other events that close down a city or area are bad, but the feeling of connection to neighbors and even other strangers going through the same thing almost makes them worth it." Subjects with a high TEAM score experienced greater feelings of social connectedness.

We're All in This Together

Are you a die-hard "Harry Potter" or "Game of Thrones" fan? Gabriel extends this notion of collective effervescence to fictional characters and communities in something called the collective-assimilation hypothesis. Psychologically participating in a fictional world using your imagination can produce feelings similar to collective effervescence, not just between yourself and other fans of the same works, but even between yourself and the imaginary characters you're reading about.

Fans of these intricate mythical worlds tend to feel a sense of belongingness, positive mood, and increased life satisfaction, which is comparable in many ways to the kind of solidarity that members of a trade union or a religious group feel for one another. Whether you're one to lose yourself in the music or the plot line, you've likely experienced several forms of collective effervescence through your lifetime. And every time you do, science says you're better for it.

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See how many people can be smarter than one in "The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell February 1, 2017

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