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Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

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

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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

 

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

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