Anyone who has experienced fighting their way through a seething mass of humanity will perhaps bear witness to their frustration and inconvenience of their experience. Research by St Andrews psychologists, however, begs to differ, suggesting that being part of a large crowd may be beneficial for well-being.

The study examined the crowd of the largest religious festival in the world, the Magh Mela, in which around 70 million pilgrims descended upon Allahabad in Northern India in order to bathe in the Sangnam (a confluence of the Rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati) as part of a Hindu ritual of cleansing sins and worship. The attendees endure rudimentary sanitary conditions, dense crowds and near-freezing sleeping conditions for well over a month in order to bathe in the cold Ganges water.

Despite these physically harsh circumstances, however, the study found that the 500 volunteer pilgrims (known as Kalpwasis) reported improved “state of mind”, “physical health” and “energy levels” in comparison with a sample group of those who did not attend.

Professor Stephen Reicher, an expert in crowd behaviour at the University of St Andrews, commented: “The Magh Mela is probably the greatest event on earth. Over the month of the festival many millions of people can attend. As a result, it is densely crowded, extremely noisy and the sanitary conditions are rudimentary at least. All this would suggest that the event would be stressful and a threat to health and well-being, but what we found was that attending the Mela  is actually good for people.”

Kumbh Mela Festival. Photo: sabamonin, Creative Commons

The researchers suggest that being part of a crowd where members have a sense of common purpose and a common identity fosters close, warm and supportive relations between people.

The project was a collaborative effort between the Universities of St Andrews, Exeter, Allahabad in Northern India and Queen’s University Belfast, and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Professor Reicher continued, “It creates a sense that, with such support, one is better able to deal with the challenges of everyday life. And this sense enhances mental and physical well-being. Indeed, those who attended the pilgrimage reported fewer headaches and aches and pains amongst other improvements.”

Professor Narayanan Srinivasan, from the University of Allahabad, oversaw the Indian side of the study. She commented, “The Mela is huge, crowded and noisy; the conditions are often harsh and the pilgrims give up all their home comforts. One might have thought that it would take a toll on the health of these people, many of whom are frail and elderly. But to the contrary, it brings them together in a way that actually improves their well-being. This is one more remarkable aspect of a quite remarkable event.”

The study has helped to disperse negative preconceptions of crowds by demonstrating numerous and tangible personal benefits of shared religious, musical and social experience. As Dr Nick Hopkins, of the University of Dundee, concluded, “Crowds can actually be good for you!”

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