Convergence Theory: An Explanation of Psychology of the Individual in Crowds
Many explanations of collective behavior, rather than considering the processes that transform a wide variety of people so that they will act similarly, suggest that the members of the collective may have been similar to one another from the very start—that it was their similarities that prompted them to join the collective in the first place.
Convergence theory is an explanation of collective behavior Opens in new window assuming that individuals with similar needs, values, or goals tend to converge to form a single group. Convergence theory argues that the behavior of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together.
For example, if a crowd becomes violent (a mob or riot), convergence theory would argue that this is not because the crowd encouraged violence but rather because people who wanted to become violent came together in the crowd.
Convergence theory proposes that individuals who join rallies, riots, movements, crusades, and the like all possess particular personal characteristics that influence their group-seeking tendencies. Such aggregations are not haphazard gatherings of dissimilar strangers; rather, they represent the convergence of people with compatible needs, desires, motivations, and emotions.
By joining in the group, the individual makes possible the satisfaction of these needs, and the crowd situation serves as a trigger for the spontaneous release of previously controlled behaviors. As Eric Hoffer (1951) wrote, “All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind” (p. 9).
Early conceptions of crowds, which portrayed their members as less intelligent, more easily influenced, more impulsive, and more violent, have not received consistent empirical support (Martin, 1920; Meerloo, 1950). Participants in mobs—particularly in connection with sports—tend to be younger men who have engaged in aggressive crowd activities in the past (Arms & Russell, 1997).
People who join radical religious groups are usually teenagers or young adults, and although they tend to be more idealistic and open to new experiences, and higher in psychological dependency, they show no signs of psychological disturbance (Bromley, 1985; Levine, 1984; Walsh, Russell, & Wells, 1995).
Convergence theory, with its emphasis on the distinctive characteristics of the individuals who seek out membership in a collective, explains why only some people take part in social movements Opens in new window.
Criticism of Convergence Theory
The primary criticism of convergence theory is that there is a tendency for people to do things in a crowd that they would not do on their own.
Crowds have an anonymizing effect on people, leading them to engage in sometimes outlandish behavior. Thus, while some crowds may result from like-minded individuals coming together to act collectively (e.g., political rally), some crowds actually spur individuals into behavior that they would otherwise not engage in.