Convergence in Psychology: Definition & Theory

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Convergence in psychology and sociology is an approach to the study of crowd behavior. In this lesson, we will explore convergence theories, including the definition of convergence and theories related to it.

What Is Convergence?

Although crowd behavior is everywhere around us, in shopping centers, parks, streets, and schools, there are different theories as to why a certain crowd will act like it does. Convergence theory states that crowd behavior is a composite of the individuals who join, and that people join a certain crowd because they want to behave in a certain way. It is the 'strength in numbers' principle.

Convergence Theory

Convergence theory is an opposing theory to the contagion crowd behavior theory, which proposed that people tend to get caught up in the attitude and behavior of the crowd. When a group of people forms in an emotionally charged situation, contagion theory states that if you join them, you will tend to become part of them and start to think similarly to the group. The energy and drive of the crowd takes over your own rationality, driving you into an irrational state.

For example, the classic 'lynch mob' mentality is used to explain contagion behavior. A few people get excited about the idea of hurting someone, and their energy spreads to others. People get caught up in the excitement, and before long, you have a large mob, ready to take violent action.

A similar idea appears in the crowd's response to speeches by Brutus and Marc Antony in William Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. In the play, Julius Caesar is assassinated by the Roman Senators, including his good friend, Brutus. After the assassination, a crowd gathers as a reaction to the horrific event. Brutus gives a speech to the people, earning their support. Marc Antony, a friend of Caesar's and in direct opposition to the assassination, follows Brutus' speech with one of his own, completely swaying the crowd in the opposite direction, until the people are ready to kill Brutus and the other Senators who took part in the assassination.

Convergence theory proposes that you joined a crowd for a reason. Your subconscious instincts or desires drew you to the crowd, and the way you're thinking will influence the crowd that you joined. The group seems to take on its own mind, and acts automatically, because of the collective desires of its members.

So, in the example of the lynch mob, convergence theory supports the idea that the crowd brings with them an array of pre-existing desires and tendencies. The mob does not instigate the ideas, but instead is driven by them. The mob becomes the composite of the individuals who were drawn to the group.

According to convergence theory. the Roman people were not swept away by the infectious nature of the crowd, but were actually acting out their own underlying feelings of vulnerability, fear, frustration, etc. The two speeches both played on those underlying causes, and the crowd responded in a way that represented the instincts and feelings of the people involved.

Approaches to Convergence Theory

Psychologists argue that when you join a group, you bring with you certain instinctual tendencies. Subconscious and unidentifiable instinctual drives (such as the survival instinct) can be brought to the front by a group of like-minded individuals. The crowd behavior takes on the nature of all of the invisible instincts present.

Related to the instinct theory is the idea that you have frustrations and difficulties in your life that you are unable to act upon. As part of a crowd with similar feelings, you become empowered to take action. The group's energy becomes the common element, and the group's behavior reflects the emotions of its members, often targeting a 'scapegoat' figure as a subject of violence.

Some sociologists propose that the latent tendencies (the ways that you would act if you could, but are limited by your situation in life) inherent in the members of a group tend to take over the group, causing it to have a 'mind of its own.' The points where the individuals' latent tendencies agree become focal points for the activity of the group. A similar approach states that crowds of people have shared traits - areas in which they all agree - that then drive the behavior of the crowd.

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