What Is Collective Behavior?

Felicia Dye

Collective behavior refers to an action, process, or event that emerges spontaneously among an unorganized group. This type of behavior lacks obvious structure or indicators to explain its emergence or existence at a given moment. Although it is usually temporary, collective behavior can effectively produce social changes or have other notable effects. Examples of this phenomenon include mass hysteria, riots, and fads. Sociologists continue to study the matter, but much about this aspect of human behavior remains unknown.

Participants engaging in collective behavior are not members of a structured group.
Participants engaging in collective behavior are not members of a structured group.

Owing to unresolved questions, the definitions, observations, and explanations of collective behavior sometimes vary, but there are certain aspects of this type of group participation that tend to be commonly agreed upon. For example, most sociologists describe this behavior as being unconventional. One reason for this is because the participants tend to go along with the idea, yet they are not recognized members of a structured group. In some cases, they may have never had any interaction with other participants and may not even be in close proximity to them.

Police might be called in to put down riots, which are a form of collective behavior.
Police might be called in to put down riots, which are a form of collective behavior.

Consider, for example, the collective behavior that can be witnessed during a riot. This type of violent, undirected action can spread across a city or a nation. Individuals may see others engaging in this type of behavior and become part of the wave of violence. If they are questioned afterward, it is very likely that the participants may cite different reasons for being involved, though a common trait, such as anger or frustration, may be noted among them. The participants may not even know exactly how, when, or where the riot began.

The "herd" instinct refers to people's tendency to adopt one another's ideas and behavior.
The "herd" instinct refers to people's tendency to adopt one another's ideas and behavior.

A person may assume that, for a large group of unassociated people to become involved in a common act, that the behavior would have to meet certain levels of worthiness, justice, and fairness. Collective behavior reveals just how inaccurate such an assumption is. Another of the commonly agreed upon characteristics of this behavior is that it does not reflect the social structure that is in place at the time. This does not mean that such behavior is always negative or always results in violence. A fad is an example of collective behavior that generally causes no harm.

Fads are also ideal illustrations of collective behavior's tendency to be temporary. There is generally no specific cause for its end, and the moment that such behavior ends may be difficult to pinpoint. In retrospect, it may simply appear to have fizzled out.

Although this type of behavior tends to generate actions or events that begin spontaneously and end without intervention, there is a substantial amount of interest about this topic within the social science community. Sociologists who study the matter commonly seek answers about how this sort of behavior evolves or mechanisms that can be used to control it. This information has the potential to serve numerous useful purposes, such as preventing death and providing the ability to direct populations during natural disasters.

Collective behavior can feed into demonstrations.
Collective behavior can feed into demonstrations.

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