From Crowd to Chaos: Real Project-X

It all started with an invitation for a Sweet Sixteen Party-of Merthe in the dutch village of Haren. She posted the invitation for her birthday on the social networking site Facebook to her friends, but forgot to indicate that it was a private party. This small mistake had some serious consequences. Under the name “Project X Haren” the invitation got a life of its own. It was named after the movie: “Project X” in which 3 high school seniors throw a birthday party to make a name for themselves.

In a short time thousands of people were invited to the party in Haren, by using Facebook and Twitter, there were videos uploaded to YouTube and there were links posted on blogs and forums. The parents of the girl warned their neighbors on September 14th  in a letter about the commotion.

On September 18 the municipality had a consultation with the police and an emergency ordinance was drafted, which would be used as the ‘party’ would escalate. The national media picked up on this story and Project X became the talk of the day.

Between 19 and 21 September the number of invitations grew to 250,000 of which 30,000 people reported to come. The Mayor of Haren, Rob Bats, talked to the family of the birthday girl and as a precaution, the immediate area surrounding the house was closed to the public and the family was moved to another location.

During the day, there were only a few hundred curious people present, but around seven thirty, thousands of visitors came to the town of Haren. The atmosphere was pleasant at the beginning, but by nine o’clock the atmosphere completely changed and riots arose. Hooligans and rioters from across the country seemed to be present. They deliberately sought the confrontation with the police, were very violent and started to damage things in their surroundings. After the riots ended, the town of Haren looked abandoned. The only thing left was a trail of destruction. On the street there were laying bricks, bicycles, shopping carts, crates and empty beer cans. Windows were smashed and windows of shops were emptied and a supermarket was looted. Thirty-six bystanders/rioters and fifteen policemen were injured. The damage that is caused by the riots is estimated on several millions of Euros.

From Crowd to Chaos

But how can it be that this innocent birthday invitation leads to several million worth of damage? The Mayor of Haren, Rob Bats said:

“The council knew that the situation would escalate in Haren, but hoped that an appeal to the common sense of the youth could keep the situation under control.”

The majority of people who came to Haren for a party, did that to have fun and to get together. They came with a mischievous intent, not with a criminal one. They probably did not come to loot a supermarket, throw stones at the police and damage cars.  But the fact that the authorities did not want them to come made it more tempting.

Criminologist Tom van Ham says in the AD that he does not exclude that in the riots ‘the new hooligan’ has struck.

“Groups of young people go to the location, such as dance events and want to riot. This escalates when bystanders to this group join as the riot has started,” says Van Ham.

So what’s the reason that seemingly innocent bystanders join the hooligans and start to create havoc. One of the first psychological theoriesabout this crowd behavior is  the contagion Theory that was formulated by Gustave Le Bon [1]. Contagion theory states that a crowd exerts a hypnotic influence over their members. The individual members become anonymous, personal responsibility goes down and they surrender to the contagious emotions of the crowd.


Zimbardo (1969)[2], attribute this effect to a process of deindividuation. When people are in a crowd, their normal constraints on behavior become loosened, which leads to an increase in impulsive and deviant acts. If people think that they can’t be singled out of the crowd and be evaluated, they feel more anonymous and will behave in a more anti-social way. Zimbardo studied the effect of anonymity in  a group in a lab study. The participants were placed in a room and instructed to give shocks to another “participant” (who was a confederate and did not actually receive any shocks). One group of participants were allowed to see and be seen by the victim, while the other group was given Ku Klux Klan-type hoods to wear over their heads to make them anonymous. As a result it was found that the group of participants wearing the hoods gave nearly twice as much electric shock as those who did not.

Diffusion of Responsibility and Norms

Being in a crowd or a group also encourages the diffusion of responsibility. Which means that people feel less accountable for their own actions. So if an individual acts in an anti-social manner while he is in a group, it is the fault of the group as well as his own. This leads to an overall weakening of self-consciousness and social influences. The social norms no longer apply to the crowd and the group will create its own norms. Turner and Killian (1975)[3], named this the Emergent Norm Theory. This is especially in the case of less stable crowds, for example as one person decides to break the glass of shop windows and others join in. The other group members adhere to this new group norm,  which results in antisocial behavior on the part of the individual and the group.


The behavior of an individual can be extreme when they are part of a crowd. The increased feeling of anonymity and the diffusion of responsibility leads to a weakened sense of self-consciousness and individuals to behave in anti-social ways. So never underestimate the power of a crowd. You might be surprised what you would do under these circumstances.


[1] Le Bon, G., (1896) General Characteristics of crowds – Psychological Law of Their Mental Unity. The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind. Book I, Chapter I.

[3] Turner, R. H. & Killian L.M.,. (1972). Collective Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[2] Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus   deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1969 (pp. 237–309). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


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