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Karma of the Crowd

The February 2014 issue of National Geographic has an interesting article on the “Karma of the Crowd.” Laura Spinney reports on research by psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews. He looked at the psychological and social effects on Indian Hindus who went on a pilgrimage to Allahabad for the Maha Kumbh Mela festival. Depending on the year, 30 to 70 million Hindus come to bathe and pray at the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The thought of those crowds in a space the size of half of Manhattan (with third-world toilet facilities) makes me want to run the other way. But many pilgrims actually came home healthier and happier than when they left for the Kumbh, despite bathing in heavily polluted water and enduring stress and misery on their travels.

What was going on? Reicher pre-tested and post-tested pilgrims and non-pilgrims on their mental and physical health. The pilgrims showed a 10 percent improvement in such things as pain, breathlessness, anxiety and energy levels. Before you poo-pooh this improvement, realize that many drug companies would be thrilled with this level of success for their pharmaceuticals.

What brings these benefits? Likely the effect of shared identity. “Belonging to a crowd… might thus benefit the individual in the same ways more personal social connections do,” the article says.

Rather than crowds being harmful (think mobs and looting), crowds are critical to society, Reicher is quoted as saying. “They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they even help determine our physical well-being.”

The trick, though, is it can’t be just any crowded subway car. The pilgrims felt tied together in the same purpose and felt a sense of belonging.

In “Pack Leader Psychology,” I proposed a similar concept — that we social humans absolutely need a sense of acceptance and belonging to feel emotional fulfilled. I proposed that modern Western society has so many social and emotional problems because of a lack of sense of belonging to a larger group and cause — a “pack.” This article confirms that theory, even linking the life expectancy in the United States to our lack of social connections and increased isolation.

So it may be time to reconsider. Maybe that sports game is more than just about cheering the home team. And sitting in church is not just about seeking salvation. We all need “a tribe” for a sense of belonging, and with that comes wonderful benefits to our health and wellbeing.

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