The Crowd Machine: Leveraging Emgergent Crowd Behavior in Policy and Response

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Craig Cooper


Crowds that experience a focus event—a mass-casualty incident that arises during a pre-planned event—have repeatedly taken on the role of “immediate responders.” However, without an understanding of crowd behavior, officials and emergency response planners cannot leverage it for a more effective response. This thesis challenges traditional studies of crowd behavior to glean an understanding of crowds’ reactions to focus events.
For example, the early works of Gustave Le Bon, which have influenced modern-day planning, leave officials and planners to imagine crowds as mindless mobs. Yet a crowd that experiences a focus event more closely resembles a complex adaptive system, particularly its non-linear nature. Through the lens of a complex adaptive system, a crowd cannot devolve into chaos. Indeed, complex adaptive systems operate at the edge of chaos without ever achieving it, the result of living systems’ seeking order—the chaordic.
This study employs case study analysis of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting to evaluate both crowds as complex adaptive systems, looking for correlating crowd behavior while examining the pre-event response posture and initial response by first responders. The research was derived from open sources, including after-action reports, journal articles, and formal inquiries; no new interviews were conducted. The case studies evaluate the crowd emergence witnessed in Boston and Las Vegas, as both supplied needed assistance but also hindered the responding agencies. The findings confirm the non-linearity of crowds, their impending emergence, and the need to shed old frameworks of crowd behavior that explain crowds as mindless mobs.
The findings in the case studies chapter led this research to formulate a new framework for officials and planners to consider in contingency planning for a focus event. The framework comprises stress, panic, chaos, and priming. Research for this thesis and the case studies demonstrate that stress is responsible for fight-or-flight behavior, which translates into focus event preparations for officials. Moreover, in most focus events, stress compels emergent behavior in immediate responders, while panic and mass panic are misnomers in the context of crowds experiencing focus events. Furthermore, communication with the crowd does not incite panic as traditional authoritarian crowd-management discourse suggests; rather, communication is a positive action that officials can employ to acquire credibility with the crowd and to assist responders with their response.
Chaos in the newly presented framework highlights the non-linearity of crowds experiencing a focus event, because as complex adaptive systems, they seek order—stabilizing the chaordic zone with flexibility to react to the rapidly evolving scene. Planners can leverage the opportunities presented by the crowd within the chaordic zone through an understanding of priming, the final element of the framework. Priming means that an individual possesses skills to draw from to intervene during a focus event, and planners can capitalize on the inevitable emergence of such priming within a crowd. For instance, the hemorrhage control skills learned in “Stop the Bleed” training prime an individual to apply a tourniquet to an injured crowd member during a focus event. Officials responsible for the safety of individuals attending events have an opportunity not only to plan for crowd members who are primed to be immediate responders but also to prime their local constituents to build general resiliency within their communities.
This thesis finds that planners who view crowds experiencing a focus event through the lens of a complex adaptive system will better understand crowd behavior; thus, officials can create a more effective response that leverages the crowd within the first 15 minutes of the act of violence. Among the actionable recommendations of this research, planners should evaluate crowd demographics for upcoming events as a factor in crowd emergence, as well as responder distractors caused by individuals within the crowd. Moreover, when agencies pre-deploy resources along with a pre-established unified command structure, they may more effectively leverage the crowd.
The current mentality of the first-responder community does not acknowledge the opportunity that lies within crowds experiencing a focus event, yet policymakers and planners alike can and should account for the inevitability of crowd emergence, made manifest in immediate responders. Moreover, future research should reevaluate crowds as complex adaptive systems to find new ways to leverage them during focus events. Until then, this thesis provides planners with a modernized framework to leverage stress, panic, chaos, and priming in a crowd within the first 15 minutes of an emergency response to improve the outcome.

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