More than three million Muslim pilgrims travel annually to Mecca for the Hajj. Among the rites they must perform during the five-day festival is to walk seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building at the centre of the Grand Mosque.
In previous years the sheer number of pilgrims in one place has led to several incidents of injury or death. But, while crowd safety is a major concern, research by Hani Alnabulsi and Dr John Drury shows that self-identification with the crowd can also promote expectations of support for those taking part, which also then leads to more considerate behaviour and greater feelings of safety.
The psychology researchers carried out a survey of 1194 pilgrims during the 2012 Hajj. Participants were interviewed and asked to complete a questionnaire whilst in the middle of the crowd on their feelings of safety and their level of identification with others in the crowd.
The researchers also took measures of crowd density, which at times reached up to eight people per square metre.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 9 June 2014, showed that, although higher crowd density reduced feelings of safety, this effect was moderated by social identification with the crowd. Those who identified most strongly with the crowd actually felt safer as crowd density increased. This was due to an increased perception that others in the crowd were supportive.
Crowd identification and perceived support also helped explain differences in reported safety across national groups, with pilgrims from Arab countries and Iran reporting greater safety compared to those from other countries.
Dr Drury said: "Crowds are often considered a social problem. A common view is that they are dangerous, stressful and lead to extreme or irrational behaviour.
'But our study shows how the crowd can be understood as part of the solution rather than just the problem. An increased expectation of social support from others in a crowd could increase considerate behaviour and thus reduce the dangers of being trampled or crushed in situations of high crowd density."
Provided by University of Sussex
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