Be One With The Crowd - Understanding Crowd Behavior and What Drives It

When in Rome

One of my favorite movies of all time is Gladiator. I know, barbaric as it may be, some of the hidden lessons within stuck with me. And no, I am not referring to how to duck-and-dodge chained lions with a spear while being cheered by thousands of people that would gleefully await my imminent doom.

One particular scene sticks out, and it would be the lesson that propels Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, toward his target.

Proximo, who (for lack of a politically correct replacement), shall refer to him as Maximus’s mentor, challenges Maximus with a powerful quote about obtaining freedom.

“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.”

And win the crowd did he ever. Citizens of Rome inside the Coliseum rallied around Maximus, enabling Maximus achieve to his ultimate goal: to challenge his enemy.

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Following the theme of “When in Rome,” let me offer one of my favorite thought experiments.

I conduct a lecture annually in my knowledge management course about convergence and contagion. The simulation I propose to my students is simple:

The next time you attend a sporting event, examine your own behavior. Is it uniform with the crowd? Is it commonplace to accept grown people unnecessarily screaming at uniformed folk?

Then ask yourself this critical question: if I were sitting at home right now, would I be acting like this?

The answer is probably not. And I use this example then and now to illustrate a point: crowds do really funny things to us.

“Please have a seat in the pit”

There are several themes of crowd behavior I want to focus on. First, how individuals converge toward a crowd in uncertain settings.

Think about it – when you see a crowd forming, there must be a reason why all of these people are converging together!

I was at the DMV a few days ago. As I entered I spoke to a nice woman and obtained my butcher card. You know, the card you get when you are waiting at the butcher shop on your order? Anyway, I looked into the common room where the DMV employees sat behind the elongated servicing podium. The place was packed. And it had to be 100 degrees in this room. I nearly turned around and got back in my car, but then I did some quick calculations. There were really only about 40 people in the common room, with 10 DMV employees servicing in rotation. The crowd was marginal after further evaluation. It just looked large.

Meanwhile, in the entryway in the front of the building sat eight seats. Eight unoccupied seats. And it was a cool 70 degrees.

I thought there had to be one of two explanations:  first, the seats carried the Ebola virus. Or second, sitting in the hallway would assure you would miss your number being called. So first, I asked the front desk attendant if, in fact, the seats were carrying the Ebola virus. I took from her displeased look that they did not.

So I sat down and reviewed the lay of the land. Not only could I hear the numbers being called, arguably more clearly than in the DMV pit, but also the big screen TV that sat in front of my seat showed the current queue.

Crowd drives crowd.

In Jonah Berger’s most recent masterpiece, Invisible Influence, he shares an example of cars parking in an empty parking lot, arguing that the preferences of how to park all hinge on whoever happened to park first. The strategy of the remaining drivers tend to park in line with the trend of the lot, thus converging preference towards the crowd. In essence, the second car conforms to the behavior of the first car, the third to the first two, and the tenth to the pattern of the first nine.


Follow the Crowd

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Last winter, I traveled to Charlotte, NC for the ACC Football Championship. My wife and several friends took the tram into the city. This thing was packed. I held my breath as we coasted down the tracks. When the doors opened to our stop, the crowd funneled out in the same fashion as a well-orchestrated zombie pack on rollerskates.

As we exited, there were two sets of stairs under the same tunnel. I observed as a mob line formed in front of the stairs on the right. As I waited among the herd, I asked myself, why is no one going down the left set of stairs? So I jumped out of line and went down the left set of stairs. The stairs on the right and the stairs on the left lead to the same exact endpoint.

The difference, however, was no crowd formed to the left, so the assumption was left did not work.

What I found more interesting after I descended the stairs was observing the crowd. In the span of about 15 seconds, the set of stairs on the right would be the new empty set of stairs.

Crowd follows crowd. People converge towards a crowd.


Social Proof

Warren Buffett was really onto something in one of his first models of investment strategy:  buy stock in companies with long lines.

Referencing again social influence guru Jonah Berger, the summation of this is in Social Proof.

It helps explain why we believe a restaurant must be good if it is packed. It might just be packed because three kitchen employees, two servers and a hostess called in sick and the kitchen is backed up by an hour.

It helps to explain why we assume rides at an amusement park must be better because the line is longer than other rides. It could be because the ride has a seat limit smaller than others, the park is doing maintenance on the track, or there is a heated argument going on about height limit between a 9-year old and a park employee.

south park line ride waiting in line crowd mob group mentality sheep herd marketing

Social Proof also helps to explain why the DMV pit filled up, and why the tram in Charlotte exited right. If everyone else is doing it, there must be a reason!



If you asked me today what I would do with my life if the option was feasible, I would tell you I would study crowds. Part of the reason is because they are fascinating, but the bigger reason is they scare the daylights out of me. As described in this post, many bets are off when put to a crowd. But it does not have to be this way.

Designing a product, a brand, or an environment should foster an idea favorable to a crowd. And to do this, you have to understand what is driving the crowd. I have described some instances here: conformity, convergence, social proof. There are many other explanations for how crowds rally behind an idea.

How is your product, brand or environment like your crowd? What is your crowd saying? And is that the ideal message?