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Crowd Psychology: What Comes After Boston for Mass Public Events?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Can't Keep 'Em Down: New Year's in Times Square

Will the masses at NFL events do “the wave” only in the watchful sights of a police sharpshooter’s high-powered rifle? Is tailgating before the game all but nostalgic history? Will major marathons be relegated to a dull repetition of 105 or so loops around a stadium track?

These are some of the questions that immediately spring to mind as frissons of anxiety pulsate through the constant stream of media reports in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy.

The answer to the query of whether voluntary attendance at large public events will drop permanently can probably be found by clicking on this link.

Even post September 11th, Times Square is as much a gathering point for tourists—and locals—as it has ever been in the many decades it has served as the navel of New York, the city’s focal center—and not just on New Year’s Eve, when the police scrutinize crowds with a vigilance that may become a model for the type of security required at future marathons or other large gatherings.

True, attendance may drop a bit at public events because of the irritating TSA-like measures that could be instituted just to be allowed to stand in the cold and crane your neck over 20 people blocking a view of the finish line. But crowds will keep coming.

The legacy of September 11th, as witnessed by the tourists that descend daily upon Times Square, prove the point—the attacks served as a kind of mass immunization for the eventuality of shoe bombers and marathon killings. The threat of persistent trauma after these events always lingers, but, except for those who experience a tragedy firsthand, that threat is exaggerated—at least that’s what a body of reputable research shows.

George Bonanno, a Columbia psychology professor who studied resilience among New Yorkers after September 11th, found that only six percent of the nearly 2,800 surveyed in a random sample experienced post traumatic stress after the 2001 tragedy. “There’s a big spike in trauma symptoms right after and then they’re gone,” he says. Bonanno, in fact, said that those living close to the attack may have recovered as well or better than those in other parts of the country who just watched what happened on television. “Living with a situation on a daily basis, there’s little choice but to put things out of your mind,” Bonanno says.

Lasting effects en masse do happen. But when they do,  they often affect a beleaguered sub-group, victims of a prejudice that occurs relentlessly over generations. When I Googled “collective trauma” Tuesday afternoon, nothing came up for Boston Marathon. But there was a headline from Der Spiegel. Hüseyin Avni Karslioglu, the Turkish ambassador to Germany, lamented xenophobic killings and arson incidents against Turks, which led to what he characterized as a “collective trauma” that had undermined Turks’ basic sense of safety in that country. The closest analogy to the American experience might be, not the threat of terrorist attacks, but the seemingly endless tide of mass shootings, often occurring outside major urban centers.

After the marathon tragedy, normalcy will return, except in the unlikely scenario that explosives in public places become commonplace. The  bombs in Boston do not mark the beginning of our own Battle of Algiers. The tailgating will continue.

Image Source: Rob Boudon/Wikimedia Commons


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. greg_t_laden 7:54 pm 04/16/2013

    Absolutely right, thanks for posting this.

    I’ll add this bit: The local news here in Minnesota was hyping, of course, how Boston affects us here (i.e. 500 Minnesotans were at the race, we have a marathon here too, etc. etc.).

    In the process they went to the local Minneapolis sports venue, the Target Center, which had a game last night. They talked to the people who run the place and discovered that security was not heightened.


    Because they implemented all the security measures they could think of after 2001 9/11 and have kept them in place full force since then, so there really wasn’t anything else they could do.

    Welcome to the police state…. (If you’re at the Target Center.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Rev.Corvette 5:50 am 04/17/2013

    Cowardly acts of violence such as this are sponsored by those who wish to in fact have a “police state”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Chris Cocking 11:44 am 04/17/2013

    I’m a Social Psychologist based in the UK that has a research background in looking at how the remarkable collective resilience often seen in mass emergencies can be explained by the emergence of a shared common identity amongst those affected that encourages co-operative rather than selfish behaviour. Please see my blog link below for my thoughts on how the Boston marathon bombings have been portrayed by the UK media and how this highlights the resilience vs vulnerability dichotomy in emergency planning & response

    Link to this
  4. 4. JRCancio 2:43 pm 04/17/2013

    What concerns me after reading this article how worthless this information and this reportage is. Let’s talk the recent Boston bombings. No where do you give adequate and knowledgeable safety advice on what to do if confronted with this and similar situations. What people saw were victims panicking and doing all the wrong things in an event like this. People can be taught and trained how to adequate respond to this type of attack and better insure their safety and life. All we saw was instant panic and everyone fleeing in panic some running right into the second bomb several seconds later. It would have better in light of the first explosion everyone dropped immediately to the ground with head faced away from the primary blast and remained on the ground until safety personnel determined it was safe to move. Anyone standing, any one running is subject to flying bomb debris while laying on the ground you are less likely to be injured as anything or anyone between the next explosion is going to be hit by debris and may never make it to where you are. When people have no clue what to do – you will see what happened in Boston happen again. What I see wrong in this critical incident situation is the price America is paying for being Politically In-Correct.

    Link to this
  5. 5. bucketofsquid 3:01 pm 04/19/2013

    It is interesting that the “news” media vastly over inflate isolated events like this while ignoring actual danger. So 1 person in slightly over 100,000,000 died by bomb blast. More people will be hit by lightning this year. More than 1,000 times as many will die by car.

    Face it people, terrorists tend to be incompetent and lazy. Random psycho serial or mass killers really don’t get to that many victims. You are currently safer than at any time in history. That is reality.

    If you want a horror to worry about you should read up on deadly hospital borne infections. That has always been a major killer and continues to be progressively more dangerous as antibiotics continue to fail.

    Link to this

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