Mass Behavior: When People Respond Similarly from Afar

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  • Article's photo | Credit Jock Noble
  • Have you ever been swept up in a roaring crowd at a concert, or witnessed a sudden surge in online shopping after a celebrity endorsement? These are all examples of mass behavior, a fascinating phenomenon that sociologists study to understand how individuals act within groups.

So, what exactly is collective behavior?

Mass behavior refers to situations where large numbers of people exhibit similar behaviors, often in response to a shared stimulus or event. This can happen in both physical spaces, like a crowd at a sporting event, or virtually, like millions of people sharing the same news story online. The key is that individuals, even if geographically separated, are influenced by a common factor and display a collective response.

Unlike group behavior, which involves direct interaction within a smaller unit, mass behavior can occur even when individuals are geographically separated. Think of a sudden surge in online shopping triggered by a viral sale – people might not be physically together, but they're responding to the same influence.

Now, mass behavior isn't just about cheering at a concert. It encompasses a wide range of phenomena, some positive and some negative. Examples include rumors, fads, fashions, public opinion, and mass hysteria.

  1. Rumors

    Rumors serve as a means of exchanging information, especially in uncertain or threatening situations. While they can sometimes have a calming effect on communities, rumors may also provoke negative reactions, leading to panic or even riots, especially when tensions are high and reliable information is scarce.

    Take the 2003 North American blackout for instance. Lack of official updates fueled rumors of terrorism, prompting officials to quickly dispel them to prevent panic. Thankfully, major disruptions like those seen in past blackouts were avoided.

    Often spread rapidly, rumors may undergo modifications as they circulate, reflecting the interests or concerns of those involved.

  2. Gossip

    Gossip, focusing on the personal lives of individuals, differs from rumors in its subject matter. It can spread among small social circles or through mass media channels, with contemporary platforms often blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The proliferation of tabloid journalism and celebrity-focused media contributes to the dissemination of gossip on a wide scale.

  3. Mass Hysteria

    Mass hysteria, characterized by strong emotional reactions and self-destructive behavior in response to real or perceived threats, represents a form of dispersed collective behavior. While commonly referred to, some scholars argue that it more accurately resembles panic with a widespread audience. Historic events such as Orson Welles's radio dramatization of "The War of the Worlds" demonstrate how media can amplify collective reactions, even if based on fictional premises.

  4. Fads, Crazes, and Social Movements:

    Fads, crazes, and social movements are further manifestations of mass behavior. These phenomena often arise from collective interests, societal trends, or shared ideologies, shaping behaviors, beliefs, and consumer choices on a large scale. From fashion trends to political movements, mass behavior influences various aspects of contemporary culture.

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  • Source:
    • Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society, Updated, Collective Behavior & Social Movements, By Margaret L. Andersen, Howard F. Taylor (p. 589-590)
    • Group Dynamics, The Nature of Collectives, By Donelson R. Forsyth (p. 502)

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