Identity crisis

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Location, personal space and emotions can have a major impact on an individual’s behaviour…

Henri Tajfel’s theory on social identity proposes that the groups people belong to are an important source of self-esteem. An individual displaying their own personal identity can adopt a social identity, where connections form with like-minded people and give an individual a sense of belonging.

According to many psychologists and intellects, the extent to which individuals define themselves as individuals or as group members depends heavily on the politics inherent within their culture. But what’s this got to do with events?

At this year’s 12th European Health and Safety seminar, John Drury, department of psychology, University of Surrey, argued that event organisers need to recognise the differences between a physical and a psychological crowd, suggesting that everyone has a personal and social identity –ingress and egress will be effected by whether someone has adopted their social identity when queuing to enter or leave a venue. Distance, personal space and tolerance will all be impacted.

Drury described the process of relational transformation whereby a crowd expects to agree on some opinions and have the same perceptions and views.
If “other people” are “us” then we can expect them to act together in support of a crowd.

A physical crowd can become a psychological crowd, continued Drury. Putting this in context, and in an event situation, emergency services rely on adaptability and collective unity, hence a crowd with the same social identity would give support in an emergency, as they are first on a scene before security or Police.

“Crowd psychology is the relationship between a crowd and how it’s managed,” he said. “If you want to segregate an individual and release a personal identity from a social identity, simply ask an individual their name.”

Andrew Stevens, general manager, AP Security, argues that it’s important to cut through a social identity to get to the person beneath.

“If people are treated as a mass then they will behave as a mass,” he tells Stand Out. “You have to talk to a crowd as individuals. The first 50 people in a queue are my most important ambassadors. I talk to them all as individuals and explain the importance of walking calmly once gates open. If they walk then the rest of the crowd walks and if you run we’ll just shut the gates.

“Unmanaged crowds will act as a crowd but managed individuals will act responsibly.”

Stevens cites queuing girls, who have camped over night to see their favourite band, as an issue for organisers, particularly if they have low energy levels. This can impact on ingress. And language is key.

Safety and security are two different social terms and will make customers respond differently, as will clothing. It’s better to have your event staff smiling with their hands behind their back, interacting with the crowd and not adopting steely looks and folded arms.

Added Drury: “A crowd’s psychology dictates that ‘it’s our right to party’. But if you’re seen to be restricting that then you can have trouble if a social identity mentality kicks in – ultimately, the social crowd says ‘hey guys, you’re not in a minority’.”

Crowd mentality

Dr Nadia Wager, principal lecturer, psychology, Bucks New University, concurred with many of Drury’s comments, warning organisers that before you start to communicate with a crowd you have to look at how a crowd communicates within. And as Mick Upton stated at the seminar, much of that depends on pre-event marketing that creates hype and influences a crowd’s mentality before it even arrives on-site.

Wager argued that a female audience is less about status and confrontation and that male supporters of a winning sporting team are more dominant and therefore are more likely to be violent as testosterone levels rise.

Liz Turner, sales and marketing director, The Event and Exhibition Partnership, comments that crowd management style needs to be assessed on an event by event basis, and it’s essential to gauge the crowd dynamic from the organiser, particularly when you have to factor in alcohol consumption. Desktop exercises and “what if” scenarios can help formulate a crowd management plan, she says, and so it’s necessary for an organiser or event management company to look at each of the events they organise individually.

Tony Smith, chief executive, Right Guard Security, also adds: “Queues that clash are a recipe for disaster. Event sites that are not planned properly, not enough toilets and car parking all cause problems. And it’s not just about whether there are enough toilets that cause people to react it’s where they are positioned – it all has an effect on crowd flow and behaviour. It’s important to get a balance right. It’s about appearance and communication style.”

Communication style is key to battling social identity theory it seems. And it was argued at the health and safety seminar that jargon does not help the situation. It’s a security company’s job to give people information that they can use – not data. Data can be interpreted in several ways and it’s not a customer’s job to decipher the message. If organisers are to create safe, event environments then there needs to be a transition – security personnel must be seen as empathy figures not authoritative, and this is dictated by communication style.