Imagine you’re out around town and see a protest down the street. Within the first two seconds, you’re making judgments about the crowd of people you see. You may evaluate the crowd and their cause as being justified and join their protest. Or you may evaluate them as being unjustified and stop to argue with the protesters or join a counter-protest to make sure your views are heard, too. When people view protests, however, they do more than just evaluate how much they agree or disagree with the opinions being raised: they may also evaluate the emotions they see among the protesters. This may be especially important to observers as it helps them figure out if a protest may become violent or dangerous, in which case they may choose to leave the area. Even the police may not be immune to these rapid perceptual judgments, which could then influence when and how much force they choose to use against those protesters.
Protesting has been on the rise, both nationally and internationally. At last spring’s March for Science and the People’s Climate March as well as the more recent protests in Boston, New York, and Washington D. C., an estimated several hundred thousand people made signs and joined the crowds. Large events like this often draw both protesters and counter-protesters who want to make opposing views known. My recent research with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University suggests these instances, when protesters and counter-protesters meet, might be more risky for those who participate for reasons you might not expect. Although there can be a risk of violence from those involved in the protest or counter-protest as they try to make themselves heard, this work points to more confusion by observers in these situations, which could become risky if they try to get involved.
My research, conducted in collaboration with IU’s Social Neuroscience Lab, explored both IU students’ and Bloomington community members’ perceptions of crowds. We showed these participants crowds of 36 faces each and varied the types of emotional expressions seen within the crowds, including both positive facial expressions such as smiles, and negative facial expressions such as angry glares (see examples of similar images below). Importantly, we also varied how mixed or ambiguous these emotions were; that is, whether the crowds were mostly positive with only a few faces with another expression or whether the crowds were more evenly split between emotions. Then we asked participants to pick which emotion they thought the majority of the crowd was showing.
We found people had the most difficulty making these decisions about the most ambiguous crowds. People made more errors and were much slower to make these decisions when ambiguity was high. In addition, we found evidence for a bias toward negative emotions. That means that participants weighted negative expressions more heavily and thought there were more negative expressions within the crowds even when the crowds were evenly mixed with negative and positive expressions.
This suggests that observers have more difficulty figuring out what’s happening with more mixed, ambiguous crowds and that they may misinterpret crowds as more negative especially when crowds are more ambiguous, as they might be in cases where protesters and counter-protesters meet.
Of course, you should still join protests or counter-protests for causes you care about when you want to have your voice heard, but this research suggests you might want to stay more distant from those with opposing views to avoid confusion and the potential for violence.