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A Flock of Starlings

April 10, 2012

A very happy Easter to all my readers in the West; I hope your commemorations of the resurrection of Christ through the medium of chocolate egg laying rabbits met with great success.  As you might expect, over here it China it all passed us merrily by without even realising what weekend it was.  That’s not to say that there were no celebrations though – no, in China the Spring Equinox is still celebrated with a national holiday, but over here it’s called the ‘Sweeping of the Tombs Festival’.  Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it I know but when you think about it, which I have, it’s not so different.

We spent the holiday visiting one of the five Buddhist Holy Mountains in China, which is a mere 4hr coach ride from Mianyang.  All boded well – the sun was shining, the skies were clear and we were looking forward to a hiking up mountains and watching monkeys frolic in the snow.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, every other person in China also decided this would be a wonderful way to avoid sweeping out some tombs – for those of you who aren’t already aware, China has quite a lot of people in it.  Most of them, I think.  And most of them seemed to be trying to catch the same coach as me up the mountain.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed 500 people try and get on to a 20yr old coach that seats 36 people, but five minutes with a calculator and a vivid imagination should get you half way there.  There was no way to fight against the surge of people as they moved as one toward a bus as soon as its doors opened.

I’ve heard the term crowd-surge before of course, and I’ve been in some fairly hectic crowds at concerts and the odd festival, but I’ve never experienced anything like this.  The word surge, to me, conjures up the unstoppable assault of a Tsunami against an unsuspecting shoreline, sweeping away everything in its path – which is, in fact, exactly what happened to me at Emei Mountain coach station.  In the blink of an eye a group of individuals cheerfully shoving there way forwards gave way to an angry, hostile mob; hundreds moved as one and buses rocked on their foundations as the wash of people crashed against them.

Police and soldiers tried in vain to stop the onslaught, but were violently swept aside as the tide surged on and on.  It quickly became clear the crowd had turned – they began hurling bottles, forcing open car doors and blocking off all escape routes down the mountain.  Bottles were thrown, police were assaulted, a driver was pulled from his cabin.  Jess and I were spat out on the shoreline and looked helplessly on as the angry waters boiled around the buses, shouting and chanting.

If you’re looking quizzically back at the last three paragraphs and trying to figure out where exactly a bit of fun turned in to a near full-blown riot, then you have a pretty good experience of what it was like to be a part of such a thing.  It snuck up on us, so to speak.

I don’t know how it ended, as we decided that the walk down the mountain on a sunny evening was a preferable place to be than the middle of the rioting crowd we left behind.  But how did it begin?  How does any riot begin for that matter?  Or any lynch mob, gang, pack or angry crowd?

The psychology of groups of people is not the same as individuals, and their behaviour cannot be predicted in the same way as an individuals can – because they follow different rules.

When you see a lone starling flying through the dusk it is processing any number of individual bits of information as it swoops and rolls in the half light.  Navigating its way home, hunting for a meal, flirting with Mrs Starling, searching for nest material, navigating obstacles, planning routes, looking out for predator.

When you see the beautiful, amorphous entity that is a flock of starlings, seemingly possessing a life and sentience of its own, none of this is happening.  The black cloud of thousands, if not millions of birds are following three simple rules:

  1. Move in the same direction as your neighbour
  2. Remain close to them
  3. Avoid collisions

We are not so different.  In large groups of people, powerful instinctual urges kick in that force us to conform to the behaviour of others, for very good reasons – to be different, to be isolated, is to be eaten.  To conform, to have the identity of the group, is to find safety in anonymity in numbers.

When considering your own safety, remember that the behaviour of an individual stood in front of you will be drastically different to the behaviour of that same individual when he has a group of mates behind him egging him on, or worst actually attacking you with him.  Remember how easily a cheerful group of people can become a baying mob and remember also that you, too, have the same primal urges to conform and pay close attention to your own behaviour – that is, after all, the easiest thing to control and the most important survival tool you have.

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