Why Do Crowds Feel So Good?

You can actually feel a crowd in your body. Just being surrounded by all those other people, you feel different—lighter, ebullient, slightly buzzed. Where does this feelingwhich Emile Durkheim long ago called "collective effervescence"come from?

Credit: Flickr, Ian Broyles.
The thrill of the crowd derives from our basic social nature, the group-centeredness that got us hominids through the long, long Pleistocene and into the modern era. Ritual heightens this thrill, and a sports game is ritual in the best sense of the term: communal, sensual, exciting, structured yet creative, meaningful. The stadium itself is part of the ritual, a sacred space outside ordinary life. What happens inside is so intimatepeople sitting close together, eating, talking, focusing on the same thingsthat it feels like a giant house, hence, terms like "home team" playing a "home game" in "our" stadium. The whole experience can be transcendent, connecting us with something larger and greater than ourselves. We will never sit in the same room with the millions of people in our culture or nation, but we can get close by going to a game together.

Collective effervescence also has a physiological basis. Scientists have explained how typical ritual elements like repetitive motion and rhythmic music alter the autonomic nervous system, biochemicals, and brain waves. Recent research on mirror neurons, which fire in observers as if they were doing the same action they're watching someone else perform, seems to explain why sports spectators get so caught up in the game. "When you see me perform an action - such as picking up a baseball - you automatically simulate the action in your own brain," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons (quoted in the New York Times, 2006). I would even speculate that the density of all those human bodieswhich primarily consist of water, plus mild electrical activitycreates a sea of electrical conductivity in the stadium. If true, Durkheim would have been more literally correct than he intended when he wrote, "When they are once come together, a sort of electricity is formed by their collecting which quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation" (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Chapter 7; cf. Needham citation below). 

Wrigley Field, Credit: Ttarasiuk, Flckr.
Critiques of sports crowds are common—and usually wrong. It's unfair, for example, to criticize people for watching sports rather than playing them. Nobody makes the same complaint about museums. Nobody says, "C'mon, why don't these museum-goers paint like Picasso instead of just standing around looking at his paintings?" And, in point of fact, people who actively participate in sports are 10 times more likely to watch sports than inactive people (Allen Guttmann, Sports Spectators, 1986, p. 150).

It's also wrong to assume that every sports crowd is, ipso facto, a dangerous mob. In certain sports, obviously things sometimes get out of hand, but most sports crowds are remarkably well-behaved. Disdaining all sports crowds is not just a failure to make distinctions, it's a misanthropic rejection of collective joy.

Sports crowds, in short, put us in touch with humanity. And that feels good.

Doing the (original) wave. Credit: Flickr, Roberta WB.

Related Posts about Baseball:
All posts about baseball, including posts on sliding and rebellion, the foul ballthe catch and sharing,  and basketball vs. baseball.

Further Reading on Ritual:
Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (originally published in French in 1912). This is a foundational, classic text in social theory. On "collective effervescence," see Chapter 7,  "The Origins of These Beliefs."

Needham, Rodney, "Skulls and Causality."  In this 1976 journal article (abstract here), Needham argued that late 19th-century, Western notions of electromagnetism unduly influenced anthropological understanding of headhunting, as well as sociological theory in general, including Durkheim's notions of force and causality. Needham offers a useful warning about imposing Western scientific models onto rituals and other cultural systems.

Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process. In this influential, 1969 book, anthropologist Turner develops his notion of "communitas," i.e., egalitarian solidarity during liminal phases in rites of passage. Turner's "communitas" has a lot in common with Durkheim's "collective effervescence."


plasterers bristol said...

This is so true, what is it with crowds!...

Peter Wogan said...

Indeed, crowds can be wonderful...a sort of religious experience.