Emergent-Norm Theory: Understanding How Crowds Think

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  • Imagine being in the midst of a large crowd, such as at a concert or a sporting event. The atmosphere is electrifying, and the collective energy is almost palpable. But how does individual behavior change in such settings? What psychological mechanisms come into play? One theoretical lens through which to understand this phenomenon is the Emergent-Norm Theory. This theory provides a fascinating insight into how individuals behave in crowd situations, explaining how norms emerge and evolve within the group dynamic.

Defining Emergent-Norm Theory

Developed by sociologists Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian in their 1957 book, Collective Behavior, Emergent-Norm Theory proposes that crowd behavior is shaped by unique social norms that develop spontaneously within the group. This theory helps us understand how, even in large gatherings of strangers, a sense of shared purpose can emerge.

Have you ever been part of a large gathering — a concert, a protest, or even just a busy train station? It's fascinating, isn't it, how these groups of people, often strangers, can sometimes seem to act with a unified purpose? Emergent norm theory sheds light on this phenomenon by explaining how temporary social norms develop and influence behavior within crowds.

According to Emergent-Norm Theory, crowds are not inherently irrational. Instead, they are seen as dynamic entities where norms—informal rules that govern behavior—emerge based on the interactions among members. This theory builds upon aspects of contagionOpens in new window and convergenceOpens in new window theories. It argues that a combination of factors, including like-minded individuals, anonymity, and shared emotions, fuels crowd actions.

Taking a symbolic interactionist approach, this theory posits that people enter a crowd with existing expectations and norms. However, as the crowd interacts, new expectations and norms can emerge, leading to behaviors that wouldn't typically occur individually.

Imagine yourself at a sporting event. The crowd cheers as the home team scores a goal. This initial outburst by a few individuals becomes a cue for others, and soon the entire stadium is united in a roar of excitement. This shared emotional state and the observed behavior of others establish a new norm – cheering loudly for the home team.

Key Concepts of Emergent-Norm Theory

This theory moves beyond traditional views of crowds as mindless mobs. Instead, it highlights the dynamic interplay between individuals and the group. Here's a closer look at the key concepts that underpin emergent norm theory:

  1. Norm Emergence: In crowd situations, traditional social norms might become less relevant. Instead, new norms emerge that are specific to the context and the collective identity of the crowd. These norms are often spontaneous and evolve rapidly as the crowd interacts.
  2. Role of Key Figures: Certain individuals within the crowd can act as "keynoters" or "norm entrepreneurs." These are people whose behavior or suggestions can strongly influence the development of new norms. They may not be formal leaders but have a significant impact on the crowd’s behavior.
  3. Behavioral Shifts: As new norms emerge, individuals might find themselves behaving in ways they typically would not in other contexts. This shift is due to the pressure to conform to the newly established norms of the crowd.
  4. Social Contagion: Behavior within crowds can spread quickly through a process known as social contagion. This means that once a behavior is exhibited by a few, it can rapidly influence others, leading to a uniform pattern of actions across the crowd.
  5. Context-Dependence: The specific norms that emerge are highly context-dependent. They are shaped by the immediate circumstances, the composition of the crowd, and the type of event or situation in which the crowd finds itself.

How Emergent-Norm Theory Explains Individual Behavior in Crowds

Emergent-Norm Theory provides a framework for understanding how individuals behave in crowds by focusing on the interaction between personal motives and the emergent group norms. Here’s a closer look at how the theory explains this behavior:

  1. Initial Diversity of Behavior

    At the outset, individuals in a crowd might come with different intentions and motivations. For example, people attending a protest might have varying reasons for being there—some might be motivated by a desire for social change, while others might be seeking solidarity or simply observing.

  2. Formation of New Norms

    Through interaction, individuals in the crowd start to influence each other, leading to the emergence of new norms. This process is often driven by key individuals whose behavior sets the tone for others. For instance, if a few individuals in a crowd start chanting a slogan, this behavior can quickly become a new norm that others follow.

  3. Conformity and Behavioral Shifts

    As new norms become established, individuals experience social pressure to conform to these norms, leading to behavioral shifts. In many cases, people may act in ways that they might not consider in their everyday lives. For example, in a celebratory crowd after a sports victory, individuals might engage in exuberant behavior, such as singing loudly or high-fiving strangers, which they wouldn't typically do in a different setting.

  4. Predictable Patterns of Behavior

    Despite the initial diversity of behavior, the emergence of norms can lead to relatively predictable patterns of behavior within the crowd. This predictability is a key element of Emergent-Norm Theory, countering the idea that crowds are inherently chaotic and unpredictable.

Applications and Examples

Emergent Norm Theory sheds light on various real-world scenarios involving crowd behavior. Let's explore some key applications:

  1. Protests and Social Movements:

    During protests and social movements, shared goals and emotions can lead to the emergence of specific norms. These norms dictate how individuals participate, from chanting slogans and holding signs in unison to maintaining a peaceful presence. Emergent norms create a sense of unity and purpose within the crowd, fostering collective action.

  2. Disaster Response:

    In the aftermath of natural disasters, established social norms might become disrupted due to the chaotic nature of the situation. Emergent Norms Theory explains how new norms can arise to fill this gap. For instance, following a hurricane, survivors might develop norms around sharing limited resources or assisting each other in rebuilding efforts. These emergent norms promote cooperation and survival in a crisis situation.

  3. Sporting Events:

    The electrifying atmosphere of sporting events fosters the development of unique emergent norms. These norms can range from enthusiastic cheering and rhythmic clapping to elaborate coordinated movements like "the wave." By participating in these norms, fans become part of a collective experience, expressing their team spirit and enhancing the overall energy of the event.

  4. These are just a few examples of how Emergent Norm Theory helps us understand how crowds develop their own set of rules on the fly. By examining these applications, we gain valuable insights into how social interaction, shared emotions, and the absence of established guidelines influence crowd behavior.

Beyond the Surface: Criticisms of Emergent Norm Theory

While Emergent Norm Theory offers a valuable lens for understanding crowd behavior, it's not without its limitations. Critics point out several areas where the theory might fall short:

  1. Pre-Existing Biases: The theory focuses heavily on norms emerging within the crowd itself, but critics argue it underestimates the influence of pre-existing social norms and individual predispositions. Cultural backgrounds and societal norms can significantly influence how people behave in crowds.
  2. Emotional Rollercoaster: Some argue the theory downplays the role of emotions. Fear, anger, or excitement can significantly impact crowd behavior, sometimes leading to actions that defy explanation by emergent norms alone.
  3. Crowds: A Complex Web: The simplicity of Emergent Norm Theory might struggle to capture the full complexity of crowd behavior. Real-world scenarios often involve intricate social dynamics, power structures, and external influences that the theory may not fully address.
  4. Seeking Evidence: While conceptually interesting, the theory currently lacks robust empirical support compared to other crowd behavior theories. More research is needed to validate its claims and explore its applicability across diverse contexts.
  5. By acknowledging these limitations, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of how emergent norms interact with other factors to shape crowd behavior.


Emergent-Norm Theory offers a compelling perspective on crowd behavior, highlighting how new norms can emerge from interactions among individuals. It shifts the focus from viewing crowds as chaotic and irrational to understanding them as dynamic entities with the potential for predictable behavior. By exploring this theory, we gain a deeper appreciation of the complex interplay between individual actions and collective dynamics in crowd situations.

Understanding Emergent-Norm Theory is not only academically fascinating but also practically valuable. It can inform strategies for managing crowds in various settings, from public events to emergency situations. By recognizing how norms emerge and influence behavior, we can better anticipate and guide the actions of individuals in crowds, enhancing safety, cooperation, and social harmony.

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  • Source:
    • Turner, R. H., & Killian, L. M. (1957). Emergent Norm Theory: A New Perspective on Crowd Behavior. In "Collective Behavior" (pp. 63-78). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
    • Reicher, S. (1984). The St. Pauls' Riot: An Explanation of the Limits of Crowd Action in Terms of a Social Identity Model. European Journal of Social Psychology, 14(1), 1-21.

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