Why Some Say the Eclipse Is Best Experienced in a Massive Crowd


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Right about now, maybe you’re looking at your bank account and reports of unprecedented traffic and wondering why you thought it was a good idea to experience the eclipse in the particular spot you chose.

You felt original, planning to watch near a mountain of cars (Carhenge, near Alliance, Neb.) or along the moon’s limb (Glendo, Wyo.). But then you saw that thousands of other people had the same idea.

Some are warning of a “zombie apocalypse,” as hordes of befuddled sky-gazers strain the resources of towns more accustomed to hosting pancake breakfasts than managing Coachella-size gatherings.

Don’t worry. Here are four reasons human behavior researchers say that you made the right decision to experience the eclipse in a crowd — even if the portable toilets overflow.

Achieving Maximum Emotional Intensity

Why is it that excitement can feel so much more intense when we’re in a group with others feeling the same emotion? Fergus Neville, a social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, believes this results from seeing our own emotions reflected in the faces of others around us, which validates our own experience and amplifies the intensity of our feelings.

Enthusiasm is contagious in the sense that seeing other people looking excited can increase the intensity of your own experience of excitement. If you are fortunate, you will end up standing next to people as expressive as these women, pictured watching the eclipse in 2015 from Nice, France.CreditLionel Cironneau/Associated Press

Using a variety of tools, including surveys and heart rate measures, he has tried to assess this magnification process.

“I think that you can have the experience with small groups, but that the more people you see in your group who are sharing your experience, then the stronger the validation effect and thus the stronger the experience,” he said in an email.

Perhaps this is worth keeping in mind the day before the eclipse, as you drive around trying to find a store that hasn’t yet sold out of water.

Connecting with Strangers

If you asked people, “What’s missing in your life?,” it’s unlikely that many would respond, “Emotional intimacy with strangers.”

But if you ask soccer fans what they like about watching a match with a crowd, Dr. Neville has found, intimacy turns out to be a favorite part of the experience.

Cairo was a prime location for eclipse viewing in March of 2006.CreditMike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency

Given the macho, aggressive reputation that some sports fans have, Dr. Neville said people are often surprised by that finding. What it hints at is something other researchers have found as well: Many of us who seem not to want to interact with strangers — actually do. We just don’t know how to make it happen in normal life.

So why is it much easier to do in some crowds than others? The critical ingredient, researchers say, is a sense of shared social identity. That’s something that is pretty much guaranteed in a field full of people in matching glasses, waiting for the moon to cover the sun— regardless of whether you hang out in the same kinds of places normally.

A group of nurses observing a solar eclipse in 1927. Behavior experts see value in viewing something profound with a large group, where emotions and reactions are shared.CreditFox Photos,via Getty Images

Chris Cocking, a social psychologist at the University of Brighton, recalled standing amid a sea of friendly strangers during the total eclipse in his hometown, Cornwall, England, in 1999. He was there to enjoy the spectacle, not to study the group, but it was clear to him that something special was transpiring as the shadow zoomed across the Atlantic.

“It gave you a sense of psychological connection,” he said. “It was amazing.”

No Need to Fear the Crowd

Many places in the path of totality — the approximately 70-mile-wide strip across America where the moon will obscure 100 percent of the sun — have never facilitated a crowd anywhere near as large as the those expected on Aug. 21. Reports of towns of 200 swelling to 20,000 and national parks surpassing visitor records can incite anxiety.

An eclipse-watching gathering in 2016 in Jakarta, Indonesia, a city very accustomed to massive crowds. CreditDita Alangkara/Associated Press

This past weekend in Charlottesville was a tragic reminder of how group dynamics can go awry. But a crowd that gathers to protest something, researchers say, operates differently than a crowd that gathers to enjoy an experience. And in either case, more people doesn’t necessarily translate into more danger.

“The fear of crowds flows from the idea that crowds are irrational and that they need to be controlled,” said Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Keele University in Britain.

But a large body of research from the past decade, he said, has shown that “people don’t panic — people self-regulate.”

That’s not to say that local officials are off the hook. Helping ensure that there’s sufficient water and emergency services requires planning. It’s also crucial that even when authorities feel like their resources are strained, they continue to remind themselves that people are there for something positive and capable of responding to thoughtful communication.

Schoolchildren experiencing totality together in Accra, Ghana, in 2006. Research shows that the unpleasantness of a packed crowd shifts depending on how much we enjoy an experience. That’s why standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a concert feels different when you like the artist.CreditOlivier Asselin/Associated Press

Yes, this may sound absurd, but the way a large group is perceived has been found to have an impact on how it’s managed, which in turn affects how the people within it behave.

“Treating crowds as dangerous and antagonistic can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews who has written extensively about crowd dynamics.

It’s Like Nothing Else

Birds go silent. Spiders start dismantling their webs. What happens to the humans at totality?

“From a physiological point of view, if you took someone from bright sunlight and put them in a dark closet, the effects of just being in darkness could potentially be the same,” said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, who helped discovered seasonal affective disorder, a dramatic example of the sun’s impact on human behavior.

It’s like a drug without drugs, people often say of an eclipse. A crowd gathered in Lyndhurst, Australia for the nature’s free psychedelics in 2002.CreditDavid Gray/Reuters

But just because there’s no research to show how we’re affected beyond that, that doesn’t mean we’re not, he said.

Based on his own experience of totality in 1998, he said, “The adrenaline rush you get must be similar to parasailing or coming down in a parachute.”

And it’s that feeling, amplified by the enthusiasm of strangers, that is inspiring him to travel to a hub of clogged wireless networks to experience it yet again.

Related: Wondering what kind of solar protection you should buy? Here are some reviews and our broader guide to safely watching the eclipse.

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