When seeking to prevent violence and identify attackers before they launch an assault, leaders in the security industry can take steps to establish conditions at the entrances to venues that lead to successful threat recognition strategies. As my co-author Jason Riley and I discuss in our book, Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life, establishing the baseline for an area so that you can search for anomalies is an essential first step to building a proactive threat recognition process, but what can you do when the baseline isn’t the type of behavior that you’d prefer in that type of situation? By influencing how safe people feel in an area and creating positive atmospherics, leaders allow professional protectors to recognize anomalous behavior with a greater degree of accuracy and less effort. If you would like to transition the collective mood at the entrances to your stadiums and arenas from having negative atmospherics to having positive atmospherics, one way to do that is by shifting the component of “orderliness” that people perceive so that your entrances seem more structured.
To help security leaders determine what changes they can make to make people feel more comfortable as they approach stadiums and arenas, we can turn to the findings of an article titled, “Collective Phenomena In Crowds – Where Pedestrian Dynamics Needs Social Psychology,” that was published in the Public Library Of Science’s PLOS One Journal. In this paper, researchers set out to better understand how the entrances to venues and buildings influence the collective mood. Their research was focused on answering the question, “What is the difference between areas that don’t have a controlled process for entry and those that do?” When entrances don’t have an established process to get in, the result is a semicircle of people (image on the left) all pushing their way forward, which leads to dangerous situations. Is it better for venues to establish a “corridor” (image on the right) that causes people to get in line and wait their turn? While there is no single answer to what a venue’s security plan should look like, the research found that establishing corridors and clear lines impact the perceived level of orderliness for attendees, creating conditions that are conducive to successful security operations in three ways.
Finding #1: A corridor setup is perceived as being fairer than a semicircle setup.
When conducting a hasty search, the first step of assessing the collective mood is to assess how all of the people in the area feel about their safety at that moment. That word “feel” is important. Positive or negative atmospherics aren’t about whether people should feel threatened or not, and it doesn’t ask whether there is an actual reason to be stressed or not. It’s purely based on perception. In the corridor setup, the “Collective Phenomena In Crowds” study found that people feel more comfortable than they do in the semicircle setup. Orderliness is also about whether the social norms for the area are being followed, and one of those norms is guided by the principle of “first come, first served.” One of the reasons why the corridor setup is perceived as being more fair is because it leads to the belief that those who get in line first will be allowed in first and that there are fewer opportunities for other people to get ahead of them.
It’s interesting to note that the perception of fairness really is just a perception. In the semicircle example where there becomes a higher density of people as they crowd the entrance (discussed below in Finding #2), there are actually fewer opportunities for people to get ahead because there isn’t space for them to move into. When people are more spread out in the corridor setup, there is greater opportunity for people to overtake those who are ahead of them because there is a space for them to move into. But if people feel more comfortable because the area is perceived as being more orderly and fair, you are more likely to have a positive collective mood.
Finding #2: Using corridors results in a lower density of people.
Looking at the two heat maps of crowd density in the two venue entrance setups below, you can see that people are more spread out in the corridor setup than they are in the uncontrolled semicircle setup. With increased density in crowds, the number of options to prevent conflict decreases while also creating conditions for increased stressors and threats to those waiting to enter the venue.
Why is there a lower density of people in the corridor setup? Because there is the perception that a corridor supports the “first come, first served” principle and is fairer, people feel less of a need to close the distance to the entrance and push forward. In the semicircle setup, where it isn’t as clear that fairness will be respected, people push forward to ensure they don’t get jostled out of position to someone who comes later.
There are three key takeaways from this finding that impact security industry leaders.
The first is that a lower density of people results in higher quality observations. With a greater degree of separation between people in the crowd, security professionals are able to observe a greater number of behavioral cues because more of their bodies are visible. With more of a person’s body visible, the accuracy of the assessments increases
Second, a lower density of people means that people have more space around them, removing the stresses caused by crowding. When looking at group dynamics (the second pillar of observable behavior), when a person is positioned closer to someone than their relationship allows for (getting into their personal space), combined with an inability for the person to re-establish the appropriate standoff by moving forward, people naturally perceive that person who is too close to them as a stressor or threat. The intensity of the resulting freeze, flight or fight response to this perceived threat is often associated with how much of an interpersonal space breach has occurred and how quickly they will be able to reestablish that space by getting into the venue to minimize future collisions and contact with strangers. So by creating more space, you reduce the stress level of the group, minimizing the discomfort that is present.
Third, by creating a lower density of people, security providers can more easily get into and move through the crowd if they need to deal with a person causing a problem or diffuse a situation before it gets out of control. As security providers often plan for the worst case scenarios, creating options for the team on the ground by controlling the environment ahead of time in a corridor setup helps to allow for freedom of movement should a response be needed.
Finding #3: In corridors, norm-oriented behavior blends with goal-oriented behavior.
One of the benefits of using a corridor approach is that it makes the goal of getting into the venue a passive process for the event attendee. Since the person doesn’t have to think about how to jostle their way forward or how to prevent other people from overtaking them in line, you can minimize the impact of selfishly driven goal-oriented behavior. Because moving through the corridor process and following the rules becomes seen as the fastest way to get in, you create conditions for norm-oriented behavior to come into play. Norm-oriented behaviors are what a person thinks about when they want to play well with others and follow the social customs that allow places to function smoothly and orderly.
This is important because, when goal-oriented behavior is at the forefront of a person’s mind (like you see in the semicircle setup), the “Collective Phenomena In Crowds” study found that there are more frequent displays of the dominant cluster of behavior, which can have detrimental impacts on the collective sense of safety. During a survey conducted as part of this study, a greater number of participants thought that they could contribute to faster access into the building in the semicircle setup than they could in the corridor setup. The same people in the survey thought that pushing and shoving would be the best strategy for faster access, even though the higher density of the crowd in the semicircle setup actually limits opportunities to move forward. This can quickly escalate the tensions in a situation to higher and higher stress levels and higher impacts of the negative collective mood because of the crowding, density and resulting collisions between people, leading to uncontrollable crowds if a release valve isn’t in place.
What To Be Aware of With Corridors
As corridors are designed to create the perception that they are the best way to accomplish the goal of getting into the venue, security professionals should remain cognizant of things that could remove that perception for event attendees. For example, if a person feels that their line is taking longer than other lines, standing in line and playing by the rules is no longer the best way for them to accomplish their goal and they could revert to more active goal-oriented behavior, like switching lines, pushing forward or being rude or dominant towards those they perceive as causing the delay.
If the goal is to create a positive collective mood and to keep people comfortable, security leaders need to stay aware of the factors that would reveal when people are losing the perception that staying in line is in their best interest and have contingency plans developed for when that happens. That might be to open up new lines when one slows down, a plan to pull slow moving people out of line to address their needs without impacting the groups behind them, or pulling dominant people out of line to expedite their entry to the venue before they impact everyone around them and create a negative collective mood. Even though a corridor is not a silver bullet solution on its own, it does help to define the factors that security leaders should be thinking about and use to focus their situational awareness: things like the length of the line, degree of situational awareness of those looking for faster entry and the amount of line switching that can trigger a decision point for the leader controlling all of the entry points to the venue.
For the industry leaders who are looking to create opportunities for their security teams to succeed, there are a number of benefits to influencing the collective mood at building and venue entrances. While it will take effort, thought, and observational skills to assess how well the changes worked, it can begin by considering each of the factors that people use to assess their personal safety and that reveal the collective mood. Orderliness is just one of those factors, but by finding ways to create the sense that following the rules is the fastest way into a building, you can have an outsized impact on your team’s ability to get left of bang and find the anomaly trying to hide within the crowd.
Sieben A, Schumann J, Seyfried A (2017) Collective phenomena in crowds—Where pedestrian dynamics need social psychology. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0177328. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177328