Crowd Psychology and Sport Stadium Safety

Dr Chris Cocking, School of Health Sciences, University of Brighton

An article by Dr Chris Cocking, School of Health Sciences, University of Brighton

I spoke at this year’s SGSA conference on my research into the psychology of crowd behaviour, and criticised the sometimes pervasive notion that society has good reason to fear crowds because they are ‘mad, bad & dangerous to know’. Instead, I argued that current models of crowd behaviour that look at conflict and mass emergencies have found that crowd behaviour tends to be much more ordered than was often considered by previous ‘irrationalist’ models.

So for instance, studies of crowd emergencies have shown that the idea that crowds descend into mass panic when faced with a threat is largely a myth, and media reporting of such incidents as mass ‘panic’ or ‘stampedes’ is rarely supported by later detailed exploration of the evidence of what happened. This fits with the now universally accepted consensus that the Hillsborough tragedy was due to emergency management planning and response failings rather than because of any behaviour by the fans on the day. 

There are also wider issues at play, and in my blog on Hillsborough, I argued that viewing football matches as a public order (rather than public safety) matter reflected the irrationalist view of crowds that dominated in the 1980s, which in no small part contributed towards the disaster. So, as Fruin (2002) argued to help better ensure crowd safety, we should focus on crowd management strategies (which allow for the systematic supervision of the orderly movement of people) and not crowd control (which focuses on the restriction or limitation of group behaviour) when considering emergency planning and response at sporting events.