WHEN the people of Tunisia took to the streets to topple the corrupt dictatorship of Zine Ben Ali, there was a tourist in the crowd who had more than a passing interest in how the events were unfolding.
Psychologist Dr Chris Cocking was on holiday in the north African country when the revolution began. But for the London Metropolitan University lecturer, watching Tunisians call for a fresh start was not only uplifting in terms of seeing a people rise up in the name of freedom – it was interesting from the point of view of his current research, too.
The academic found himself in the midst of revolution in the Middle East as he conducts
new research in the psychology of crowd behaviour. So rather than cower in a hotel room, he went to investigate.
“We found ourselves caught up in a couple of riots,” he explains – and while this may sound like a daunting experience, for Dr Cocking, the behaviour of the crowds confirmed his theory of how humans act when large groups find themselves in potential danger.
“Despite press reports, we felt safe,” he says. “The only time we felt concerned was when the police arrived and people scattered.
“People spoke to us, and we found that not only were they not threatening, many were coming up to reassure us – to explain why they were targeting certain buildings and not others, and give their view of the president.
“It gave me first-hand evidence as to how crowds are reported compared to the reality on the ground. I have to take issue with the media [because] they pursued an angle – “terrified British holidaymakers caught up in the middle of a revolution” – that buys into outdated views not only of how crowds behave, but also ignores how people are more resilient in the face of adversity than they are given credit for.
“This reflects a deeply pathological view of crowds pervasive in social discourse, but not supported by evidence.”
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