Collective Behaviors: Examples & Definition (Sociology)

collective behaviors examples and definition

Collective behaviors refer to a range of psychological behaviors that occur when a large number of people act in a relatively unstructured & unpredictable way.

In other words, these are the “spontaneous” behaviors of a group of people. They are quite different from the conventional behavior we see in classrooms, workplaces, or other everyday settings, which is why they are difficult to predict & control. 

Collective behavior can range from harmless things like fashion fads to tremendously violent actions like mob lynchings. They can involve people who are physically close to each other (e.g. crowds, riots, panics, etc.) or quite distant (rumors, mass hysteria, fads, etc.).

Definition of Collective Behaviors

Neil Smelser defines collective behaviors as:

“…a set of events or actions that emerge from the interaction of individuals and groups in response to a common situation or stimulus. This behavior is typically unplanned, non-institutionalized, and non-normative, meaning that it does not follow established rules or conventions of behavior.”

(Smelser, 2007)

Smelser adds that collective behaviors reflect the broader social, economic, and political issues of society. The earliest academic work on collective behavior comes from crowd psychology, discussed by Gustave Lebon in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.

Lebon argued that, in a crowd, individual thinking and responses are lost. Instead, a “collective mind” is formed, and it makes people

“…feel, think and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would.”

(Lebon, 2002)

Subsequently, in groups, people often experience deindividuation, which refers to the sense that you are no longer individually accountable for your actions because you can blend-in with the crowd and conform to its emergent norms.

Lebon added that this happens because of three reasons. First, crowds give anonymity, removing the sense of personal responsibility. Second, ideas move rapidly through the group in a contagious manner. Third, in crowds, the unconscious aspects of personality come to the fore.

Sigmund Freud developed similar ideas from a psychoanalytic perspective. He argued that the crowd is characterized by a loss of consciousness, excessive emotions, and impulsiveness. It is similar to the primal horde, indicating:

“….a state of regression to a primitive mental activity”

(Freud, 1959)

Examples of Collective Behaviors

  1. The Pokémon Go Craze: Upon its release in 2016, Pokémon Go became a massive craze around the world. It was a mobile game that used AR (augmented reality) to let players catch Pokémon in the real world and was downloaded by millions. Some players got so engrossed in it that they ignored their surroundings and put themselves in danger.
  2. Los Angeles Riots (1992): Also known as the Rodney King riots, these were a series of civil disturbances that took place in April-May 1992. The events began after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers who had excessively beaten an African-American man, Rodney King. There was widespread looting, arson, and assault, which were resolved only after the intervention of the US military and federal law enforcement agencies.
  3. Salem Witch Trials: The Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century are an example of mass hysteria. Colonial Massachusetts was shifting away from traditional religious practices, and there were a series of crop failures & economic difficulties. In this anxious atmosphere, some young girls were accused of witchcraft. Soon, panic spread, and more accusations started circulating until over 20 people were trialed & executed.
  4. The Tulip Mania: In the Netherlands, the demand for tulip bulbs rose massively during the 1630s, and this took their prices to astronomical levels. Some tulip bulbs were selling for more than the price of a house! It is often seen as the first recorded speculative bubble in history. The craze first began among wealthy Dutch merchants, spread to all segments of society, and eventually, the bubble burst in 1637.
  5. The Stock Market Crash of 1929: This was the most devastating crash in the history of the US. In the 1920s, the US was enjoying economic prosperity with a booming stock market. Many people began investing, and as more people invested, the prices of stocks continued to rise. But, eventually, the market became overvalued, and people rushed to sell their stocks. The market ultimately collapsed, leading to years of severe depression.
  6. Black Friday Frenzy: Black Friday falls on the day after Thanksgiving and witnesses a frenzy of shopping. Retailers offer heavy discounts and open their doors early on this day, which is seen as the beginning of the holiday season. Black Friday is about intense shopping, marked by urgency & competition. Sometimes, there are stampedes and fights, which have even led to deaths.
  7. “The World of the Worlds” Hysteria: In 1938, Orson Welles did a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous short story on alien invasion, and many people thought it was happening in real life. Panic-stricken, they called emergency services and also tried to get in touch with friends & friends.
  8. Mob Lynchings: Mob lynchings involve a group of individuals taking law into their own hands and hurting/killing someone they consider guilty. In the US, during the Reconstruction era, there were innumerable mob lynchings of African-Americans in the South. India has recently witnessed several cases, such as the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015, who was accused of killing a cow (considered sacred in Hinduism).
  9. The Phantom Gasser: This was a person supposedly responsible for a series of gas attacks in Illinois during the 1940s. There were more than two dozen reported cases of gassings in which the victims smelled a strange odor in their houses and experienced symptoms like paralysis & nausea. The police found no physical evidence, and this entire episode was seen as an instance of mass hysteria.
  10. The Hillsborough Disaster: The Hillsborough Disaster occurred at a football match in 1989. During the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, an excessive number of people entered the standing-only pens in Leppings Lane. This overcrowding resulted in a crush that killed 97 people and injured hundreds of others, making it the worst sporting tragedy in Britain. 

Types of Collective Behaviors

There are several types of collective behaviors, such as:

1. Crowd Behaviors 

A crowd is a large number of people who come together either by chance or for a common goal.

It is further split into subtypes: casual, conventional, and protest.

  • Casual crowds: A casual crowd is just a gathering by chance, such as people waiting for a train.
  • Conventional crowds: A conventional crowd is when people come together for a specific (conventional) purpose, say in a film theatre. When people come together with the purpose of “belonging to the crowd itself” (Goode, 1992), there is an expressive crowd; e.g., a religious revival, a political rally, etc. An acting crowd commits some violent/destructive behavior, such as a mob.
  • Protest crowds: Finally, when people come together to raise their voices on a sociopolitical or economic issue, we have a protest crowd.

2. Fads & Crazes

Fads and crazes are harmless forms of collective behavior that are often spread over large distances. 

A fad is a product or activity (usually quite trivial) that is popular for a short amount of time. Examples include Rubik’s Cube, Beanie Babies, and the fidget spinner in recent times.

A craze refers to an activity in which a small group of people participates with immense enthusiasm. The Pokémon Go example we discussed earlier is apt here.  

3. Rumors & Mass Hysteria

Rumors are stories based on unreliable sources while mass hysteria occurs when there is widespread fear of something insignificant.

Rumors are unsubstantiated stories that lack any evidence. They may be true or false but usually turn out to be the latter. They spread from person to person, and in today’s age of the internet, they circulate rapidly through social media platforms.

Mass hysteria occurs when there is a widespread and intense fear of something that turns out to be false or greatly exaggerated. 

4. Riots

Riots are spontaneous outbursts of violence and destruction by a large number of people.

Riots are generally political, expressing discontent toward a sociopolitical or economic issue. These are known as protest riots. Sometimes celebration of an event can get beyond control and these turn into celebration riots. 

Sometimes, riots can even be issueless; e.g., looting during a large power outage.

5. Disasters

Disasters are natural catastrophes that are tremendously destructive.

These include floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. They make people confront extremely difficult situations and often involve life-and-death decisions. Common sense might suggest that, in such cases, people become completely selfish & exploitative.

However, sociologists find that the contrary is true. People confer with others and come up with collectively reasoned solutions. There is a high level of generosity towards disaster victims and people help each other in various ways (Goode, 1992).


Collective behaviors refer to a range of activities in which groups of people act in spontaneous, unpredictable ways. 

These can range from innocuous fads (like the popularity of the fidget spinner) to extremely violent acts (like mob lynchings & riots). Sociologists point out how crowds create a kind of “collective mind”, which can be excessively impulsive and hard to control.

Examples like the Salem Witch Trials remind us of the dangers of collective behavior and why critical thinking is essential for every society. At the same time, the compassionate response of people after disasters tells us that collective behavior can sometimes also be kind. 


Freud, S. (1959) {1921}. Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. W. W. Norton & Company. 

Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Le Bon, G. (2002) {1895}. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Dover Publications. 
Smelser, N. J. (2007). Collective behavior. In R. A. Smelser, & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences. Elsevier.

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Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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