Festival season is back. It sometimes creates a somewhat uncomfortable situation for both organizers and festival goers, after two years of the pandemic. In contrast, it is a very interesting period for researchers focused on the science behind the dynamics and behaviour of crowds. Canada’s La Presse recently published an article in which various experts discuss their expectations for this period.
Pascal Viot is director of the Swiss institute iSSUE and coordinator of a large festival in Nyon. He emphasizes the importance of anticipation. An event consists of different phases which are all equally important. It is essential that the organization can intervene in case of an incident, but in order to do so anticipation is crucial. In the preparation phase it is necessary to study the space available for the audience to use.
Professor Dennis Bartolo of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon has a background in physics. He draws the parallel between a crowd and liquids: all liquids follow the same laws and in a way you see that with crowds too. “Without knowing the interaction between individuals in a crowd exactly, you can still predict the dynamics of the crowd with a few measurements.”
The movements of crowds can be predicted in conjunction with the levels of density. This mainly concerns the densities at which they will cause discomfort or even a risk of accidents. The density, the number of people per square meter, is an important measure. Too high a density can create a crowd crush, which must be avoided at all times.
It’s not just physics, there should also be attention for the psychology of the crowd. Viot: “A very fanatical audience will not behave the same as an audience that comes to enjoy an evening at a festival in peace.”
Scientific insights in mass psychology make it possible to define certain counterintuitive phenomena. People tend to label a crowd as unintelligent, selfish, and more instinctive. Viot indicates that recent research has shown that people help each other in disaster situations, precisely because they suddenly go from an indifferent togetherness to experiencing a common fate. “These insights help develop our safety approach,” says Viot.
Return of crowds
Crowd psychology is especially important to consider in the context of returning to “normal” after two years of the pandemic. The message from two years of COVID-19 has been that you should keep your distance and now there’s a shift to suddenly being back in crowded spaces. So is there still a fear among festival-goers? Or do people no longer have any inhibitions, after having to wait for two years? Professor Kim Lavoie of the University of Montreal said: “People have had very little time to adapt to this lifting of restrictions, and at the same time they know that the virus is still circulating, which can cause fear.” Viot agrees that this can lead to extra caution, but at the same time sees a tendency towards boundlessness, now that there are no longer any restrictions, the risk of the ‘pressure cooker’ effect.
With the return of events this summer, many questions are yet unanswered. How will the crowd behave? Will there be more excitement or more restraint? Will we see overcrowdings, or will people avoid getting into this situation? For every event or other crowded place, you should always think carefully about your audience profile, what you expect and which measures best suit the expected densities, the situation and the target group.
Want to learn more?
ESI collects the above insights and much more for the courses and works closely with Professor G. Keith Still and other experts on this field. Interested in learning more about managing crowds safely? Read further about our course Introduction to Crowd Science! Read more about this on our training page.