February 27, 2007

Mark Earls and the madness of crowds

After this conversation, Mark Earls' book The Herd: The hidden truth about who we are will be on my Amazon Wishlist.

In the past 10 years have you noticed how many more flower shrines there are on the street side? These cellotaphs seem to be everywhere, and seem to have come from nowhere. Is this sudden flower frenzy since Princess Diana's death, where two tonnes of flowers got left in two weeks, a sign of mass behaviour, is it a message or signal being sent from somewhere, or is it a social act, a pilgrimage?

Is it a release from the inability of the people to articulate their feelings, is it something the media have helped encourage? Is it because the people see someone doing something which the media help amplify which makes those people do something physical and impulsive: people end up "just wanting to be part of it".

Is it an orchestrated politicised event which made the crowds do something which is now repeated over and over again?

How did someone make us or them do something en masse, between the moment there was nothing and the moment when there was two tonnes of flowers on Kensington Palace and cellotaphs on every street in Britain? This is what we'll set out to discover in the next hour.


The Mexican Wave: why do you take part in a Mexican wave? How can we walk down a high street and not knock anyone down? The reason? Human beings are hardwired to learn by copying each other. We are better at copying than any other mammal. When people lay flowers or cellotaphs after a tragedy it is probably not down to any of the reasons given in the intro to the talk - it's just that it is an act which is easy to copy. When you're getting weaned off drugs the pyschotherapist's main question will be "are you prepared to make new friends" just because humans are too good at copying the behaviour of those around them.

This hardwired need to copy could be one aspect which explains the explosion of the participative web. The ease of taking out that activity is another: if you want to start a Mexican wave the movement is so simple anyone can do it, if you want to publish on the web, likewise.

If copying behaviour is so easy to do and the explanations so simple, then what hope do organisations have to control this behaviour? The answer, I think we concluded quite simply, was that they can't.

A bit of a deep discussion that I might try to make more sense of later... brain frying now.


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I think it is part of the be famous for 15 mins syndrom, an attempt to link yourself to something important even tho it has nothing to do with you. Emotional tourism. I certainly think it has a LOT more to do with the layer of the flowers than with the object of the gesture.

It's also part of the encouragement to feel things deeply, to perhaps even need counselling. It sounds cynical but when there is a trgaedy related to the school I can name in advance the people who won't be in class because they are needing counselling. Their link to the event is often tenuous at best.

Remember how many worlds fell apartwhen Take That split up!


The need to belong, to know that you are not alone and are part of something bigger?
I watched (as I drove by) in disbelief as a family laid flowers on the hard shoulder of the M8 where their son had been killed 2 days earlier while he waited for a break down truck to take him of the hard shoulder – not sure what they wanted to belong to but for me this illustrates the how far some people will go to do what is now considered “normal”, they were prepared to risk their own lives.
Having never suffered a loss like this I can’t empathise with the family or even begin to understand their loss but at the risk of upsetting some people surely this is taking things too far.

Interesting post, Ewan. There is a very interesting, short essay on how copying is hard-wried into us (not too technical) at: http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_11.html#iacaboni
The focus of it is very different (copycat violence) but the adaptive quality of copying behaviour in evolution is put across very well.

I agree that people feel a need to make an emotional connection and to physically and publicly demonstrate that in some way but I think also that the media does have a huge influence on our behavour.

You see perfectly ordinary people who aren't celebrities or used to doing interviews, appearing in a news story and they talk in perfect media soundbites - (eg ' it was a living hell' is a common one!).

The media encourages this as it makes their job easier - instead of getting nearer the truth (a tricky business and often not what people really want to hear) they get a handy quote that satisfies everyone's expectations.

The Guardian did an interesting piece not long after Diana's death where they spoke to a few people who went to Kensignton Palace just to gawp at the crowds and the flowers - they later saw themselves on the BBC news being described as 'mourners' when really they were just curious passersby.


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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