There’s an anti-inspiration poster I’m fond of – a kind of antidote to those cosy memes you see passed around the web that couple a sentimental aphorism with a picture of a dolphin at dawn or similar. “Meetings,” it booms. “Because all of us is stupider than one of us.”
Anyone who has ever sat in on a meeting might have some sympathy with this idea. Of course, there are some perfectly good reasons why Napoleonic rule by edict isn’t preferable to collective judgements, but it’s natural to feel frustration at the wisdom of the herd, which often isn’t very wise.
Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in a crowd. The psychology of groups – what happens to an individual’s decision-making when they are surrounded by others also making decisions – is fascinating. If you’ve ever watched a flock of starlings swoop and soar in synchronised spectacle, you’ll know what I mean.
I used to run nightclubs and, from my manager’s eyrie in the gods, I could watch teeming masses of rowdies yawp and glory in their own hedonism. And my job wasn’t just to keep them fed and watered – it was also to keep them safe.
Now that’s a fine line to walk: fill a room too full, lower happy-hour prices too much, let the DJ loose too long, and people can become a danger to themselves.
One night, the electrics blew and the lights went out which, for a subterranean dungeon full of drunk people suddenly plunged into the dark, is even scarier than it sounds. We tripped it back, but a minute longer and there would have been panic. Another time, I struggled along with my bouncers as a fire evacuation nearly turned into a stampede and we barely kept order.
In every joint I ever ran, we had to watch health and safety videos about fires, and Hillsborough and similar, just to ram home the point: you might feel safe, but crowds in cages can become deathly serious in seconds. Do not mess about with their wellbeing.
I’m struck by this in schools. As a kid I was involved in a horror at an exit door at school. A double door had been wedged shut, so that only one door opened. As a bottleneck formed, people at the back did the obvious thing: shouted “Pile up!” and pushed like a scrum. Then people at the front started to fall down, and still people pushed from behind. Then the screaming started. A kid at the front broke a femur under the strain. A femur: can you imagine? I never forgot that.
And I remember it still whenever I run a class, or a school trip, or watch a corridor or playground. People often make poor decisions in crises: some reptilian nerve twitches and self-preservation becomes king; paths of least resistance become flooded with opportunists. Never underestimate the power of compliance to motivate people, like starlings, as they watch the person next to them and think “I’ll do that”, even if it means running off a cliff.
In a way, that’s our jobs as teachers: to have thought about the exits before the pupils have to; to have a plan in place before we need a plan. That’s why every damn fire drill and safety course is worth its weight in gold, despite them feeling like lead weights on your schedule.
They say that people who watch safety drills on planes have a higher chance of surviving a crisis because they don’t have to think as much about where the exits are and what to do with their masks. That’s why I always watch the stewards when they ask. And whenever I see a room, I always look for the exits.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71