Crowding: Cognitive Pathology in Humans and Animals

Coming from a large family, I can attest to the fact that trying to find your own space can be difficult. Even though it is learned from birth to share, when it comes down to living with family, children don’t usually want to. Living with a large family in a small house is difficult, but what would happen if someone placed 200 people into a house, barred the doors to prevent the people from escaping, and only left enough food and water to last seven people for a week? How would being trapped in the confines of a small house with not enough room to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom change the 200 individual’s social cognition? The results seem something out of a bad horror movie.


The study of population density and social pathology was heavily researched by ecologist John B Calhoun. He performed many controversial experiments on rats to see what would happen if he put too many rats in one habitat with not enough food, bedding, and females to go around. For the first few days the behavior was normal, but as the rats began to realize the food was in scarce supply, the cognition of the rats completely changed. The rats bred rapidly, and turned into what Calhoun called “rat city”. The unwanted social contact plus the amount of babies being born began to put cognitive stress on the rats and began to lead to aggression. The adrenal systems in the rats began mass producing adrenaline, and cortisol levels increased as well. The evolutionary fight or flight responses kicked in, but with nowhere to flee, fighting became the only option. The rats began to resort to cannibalism for food; picking off the weak, and eating all the pups. Some of the more aggressive mothers kept the remaining pups safe, fighting off other rats to ensure the survival of their offspring. As the numbers of females began to decrease, the males became hypersexual, polyamorous, and once the numbers of females began to dwindle, homosexual. (Calhoun, J.B. 1962) Because this behavior leads to basic extinction, save for the last few rats, Calhoun dubbed this phenomenon the “behavioural sink”, as the numbers in population declined like water down a drain. The last few rats remained withdrawn and traumatized as the numbers declined enough for the remaining rats to survive in the space. The remaining rats lived the rest of their short lives in a unified mass. When the traumatized rats were introduced to new colonies, they remained “socially autistic” and solitary until death. (Ramsden, E. 2009)


Calhoun tried to extrapolate his research onto human populations, but he died before he had a chance to do anymore “controversial” studies on any other group of animals or humans. For humans, we cognitively feel crowded when the actual number of people we see in a location is more than the intended number of people expected to be there. If people are in a public venue such as a swimming pool or a locker room, and the number of people in the area exceeds the number of people they thought would be in the area, it greatly impacts out cognitive ability to have fun in relation to swimming pools, or feel safe in relation to change rooms. There are four cognitive tools humans use to feel safer in crowded venues:

  • Site succession: When visiting places for the first time, an individual gets an impression of the place they visited. Was it fun? Was it crowded? Was it dangerous? The next time they go back to this place, they will have only the first impression to go off of, so they will expect it to be the same. By using site succession, an individual can alter future visits to this location by cognitively realizing a location will never have the same atmosphere twice, so we won’t be nervous or stressed when he experience is inevitably different.

Image result for eu na vida gif


  • Product Shift: change the label applied to the experience. If the individual goes back the second time with an open mind, and the idea that it could be more crowded than it was last time, it will set up the individual and prevent the shock and suffocation of too many unfamiliar faces they weren’t expecting to see.

girl game angry mad crowd


  • Dissonance Reduction: A cognitive coping strategy that involves an individual to maintain a state of their cognitive consistency or balance. Recreationists cope with the negative impacts of crowding by a rationalization process that minimizes the dissonance caused by crowding, and increases the positive aspects of the experience. They may seek new, constant information to maintain their cognitive consistency, they may change their attitude, or they may change their situation to minimize the amount of dissonance experienced.

Image result for thinking in a crowd gif


  • Displacement: The displacement method of cognitively dealing with a potential anxiety inducing crowded area is to choose to alter their participation patterns. This means they may seek out less crowded areas in order for them to have a good time. They may actively avoid encounters with others, shift their activity to a less dense portion of the population, or shift locations entirely. (Kuentzel, W.F. & Heberlein, T.A. 1992)


Regardless of these cognitive coping strategies, human beings do get placed in social situations in which they act exactly like the rats did in Calhoun’s experiment. Where are these terrible places? Prisons. Particularly privatized American prisons, which have more prisoners than space for prisoners. The violent, antisocial, and hypersexual qualities of the rats in Calhoun’s experiment can be extrapolated onto the broken psyche of prison inmates when placed in confinement with not enough room. IN the prisons that the book by Paul Paulus refers to, the group cells of three to nine people in them in which negative cognitive effects of crowding can result in erratic behavior which may even be out of character for inmates in prison for non-violent crimes. A better solution to the adverse cognitive thoughts crowding can have on behavior is to teach prisoners these tricks for ridding themselves of some emotional tension that may lead to scary, violent behavior. (Paulus, P. 1998)


Calhoun JB. (1962). Population Density and Social Pathology. Sci Am 306:139-48.

Kuentzel, W.F. & Heberlein, T.A. (1992). Cognitive and Behavioural Adaptations to Perceived Crowding: A Panel Study of Coping and Displacement. Journal of Leisure Research, 24(4). 337.

Paulus P. (1988). Prison crowding: a psychological perspective. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. 8.

Ramsden, E. (2009). The urban animal: population density and social pathology in rodents and humans. Bull World Health Organ, 87(2) 1.


3 thoughts on “Crowding: Cognitive Pathology in Humans and Animals

  1. I liked you talk and your post! I find stuff about situations in prisons very interesting! I also found this other interesting article about the !Kang people of Africa crowd together because they chose to. What’s even more interesting is they don’t experience any of the typical negative symptoms of crowding such as high blood pressure. The book excerpt I found talks about how the crowding actually helps foster a closer-nit community and is more a support system than a system that makes you aggravated and angry. I thought that was super cool! Though I still don’t think I would like the crowding very much! (haha)


    • I’m glad you liked it! I think your comment is almost worth a blog in itself! What a read! While the focus is more on anthropology, and less on psychology, I think it is an incredibly important contribution to the field of this research. I think this has a lot to do with my blog post on cross-cultural cognition and interpersonal societies. While Chinese and Japanese citizens may have a very close grasp of social cohesion, the relationship between the !Kung bush people goes beyond social norms. Humans are one of the best species in the world at adaptation, and this tribe is no exception. For whatever evolutionary purpose in their tribe’s past, living i overpopulated dwellings was necessary to the survival of their people. I personally can not imagine being close to so many people with at least an increase of blood pressure. I think the biggest reason why their overcrowding isn’t need for stress or panic is because they can leave. Their social cognition isn’t hindered by being crowded in a tiny place because the doors are able to be opened, and people are able to leave when they need to go hunting and collecting food. If the doors were locked, and there was no way out, regardless of their comfort with overcrowding, I think you would get the same universal, cross species, evolutionary response from them, just as you do with folks in prison. Thank for your contribution!

      Draper, P. (1973) Crowding among Hunter-Gatherers: The !Kung Bushmen. Science: New Series, 182(4109) 301-303.


  2. Hey Anthony!
    Thanks for another well-written and informative posting! I remember watching a documentary about this study, probably as a part of Psychology 1000. However, I had never actually read any of the associated research papers. Definitely falls under the “fascinating and unfortunate” category”. If I recall correctly, then the rats also obsessively engaged in preening and beautification behaviours, becoming obsessed with their own beauty. It reminds me of our current population, with the obsession with Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media, where physical appearance is the ultimate attribute, and value is often a direct correlation within that. Once rats became obsessed with their appearance, they then became socially withdrawn and did not care for their young, shortly thereafter they became violent with one another. It made me wonder if compulsive social media usage , of such forms where physical beauty is prioritized, usage could also result in antisocial behaviours. According to the research that I found, engaging in large amounts of social media usage can result in increased aggressive behaviour, particularly among males. I think that this may also be related to lowering senses of self esteem, which is also correlated with aggression.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s