Skip to main content
wce logo

Live events: It's an experience thing

As part of #WeCreateExperiences, professor John Drury talks about the value of shared experiences. Drury is based at the University of Sussex heading the Crows & Identities Group, and sits in the UK Government SAGE behavioural science subgroup SPI-B. He is a member of Independent SAGE.

The emotional importance of live experiences

I have been studying people's behaviour and experiences at crowd events for nearly 30 years. This has included live music events, sporting occasions, religious festivals, rallies and protests, and national ceremonies. These investigations and others have enabled us to understand the emotional importance of many kinds of live event, as well as how these are different compared to experiencing events remotely.

People come to live events because they want to experience them with other people who feel the same way as they do. They put up with all sorts of inconvenience and sacrifices to have this kind of experience, including travelling distances, the financial cost, the time required, queuing, and so on. All this is worth it for the experience that comes from being among like-minded others at a live event you value.

It's not just any crowd that people crave and want to be in among. The crowd of people milling about a transport hub or a shopping centre doesn't have the same attraction; quite the opposite. Here, people often want to get away from others and to maintain personal space. We call these types of crowd physical crowds; they are simply people in the same space.

The live event crowds where people are all there for the same reason, where people want to be with like-minded others, and where everyone knows this about everyone else are called psychological crowds. Here, people share a social identity, or definition of themselves collectively. It could be snooker fans, or Spurs fans, or One Direction fans, or festival goers. The point is that it is a valued group identity to those that attend. It means that they believe other people will appreciate the event in the same way that they do and will share the same assumptions about what is important and indeed how to behave.

When we ask people about what they enjoy about a live event, they use words like "atmosphere", "excitement", and "energy". They are referring not just to the performers in the music, sports or arts event, but to the emotional and behavioural responses of others in the crowd. It means that others enjoyed the event and expressed that enjoyment. Emotions are not just internal states but ways of interacting with others. At the exciting and atmospheric events, people smile at each other and meet each other's eyes. They cheer, clap or put their hands in the air together at the same points, sharing an understanding of the best moments. They also talk to each other, even if they have never met each other before. In such an event, interaction with strangers becomes easier and more enjoyable than everyday life.

We found all these elements and more in our study of a huge free music event on Brighton beach that took place in 2002. The sheer size and scale of the event, and the uniqueness of it, added to the sense of occasion. Some described it as the best event of their lives. It was a somewhat chaotic event, though, and some people had negative experiences. The people that had positive experiences, and enjoyed simply being with others, were the ones who identified with the rest of the crowd. As part of my work with event industry professionals on using psychology to enhance crowd safety, I've also shown how the same principles, as described above, can be used to enhance atmosphere and so add value to your event.

Recent research on live events suggests that there are three key elements to the positive emotional experience that comes from being with like-minded others. The first is validation. Seeing others react emotionally the same way as me confirms the validity of my feelings. This is especially important, of course, if those feelings that are not shared or are hidden in everyday life. Second, is recognition; being seen as one of the group by other ingroup members feels good. Third is support. A consistent finding is that people feel supported by others at events where they share identity with others. This makes them feel safe and secure.

These positive emotional experiences matter, beyond the event itself. Positive emotions can contribute to wellbeing, in terms of both mental and physical health. Emotions such as joy reduce anxiety which in turn lowers blood pressure levels and enhances immune functioning. Joy also broadens the range of healthy activities we engage in. The collective element of the experience is crucial. When people feel part of the group, they have greater expectations of support, which in turn reduces stress. Feeling part of a group and feeling supported can also enhance the sense of efficacy, or the ability to act. Experientially, this means greater self-confidence. The sense of efficacy and of being in control is also associated with wellbeing and has been found to be linked to physical health and healthier lifestyles.

Can the emotional desire for live be substituted online?

There is a lot of discussion about whether it is possible to have some of the same positive emotional experiences at online events as in-person live ones. From the point of view of psychology, it should be possible to get some of the benefits, under certain conditions. This is because our group memberships exist in our minds as a dimension of self, it is possible to have experiences based on your group membership when sitting alone at a computer, as long as the cues are present to make that group membership salient to you. These cues could be the topic of conversation, the framing of the event (referring to our group), and the online presence of others perceived as fellow group members.

One factor we are currently researching is the role of online interaction. The chat boxes in Zoom and other platforms used during an online event enable the participant to interact with others in a way that mimics in-person interaction. It can enable validation, recognition, and support, through allowing people to communicate with each other. However, the in-person live event also offers certain features that the online cannot. The first is the visceral (bodily) experience of the event - from sound to odour - that we enjoy when we are with like-minded others. Second, only the live event enables physical intimacy - touch, proximity, and sharing (e.g. drinks) - which again we enjoy and seek out with like-minded others. Finally, physical co-presence provides a sense of power, and even collective empowerment, that the online event cannot.

Is the mental health of the nation better for the economy?

There is extensive evidence showing that emotions and groups are good for our mental and physical health. Attending live events not only brings us joy but is good for wellbeing. This is not just a matter of lifting people's spirits. The economic cost of mental ill health in England have been estimated at £105bn a year. Through bringing joy, live events make a vital contribution to both our emotional and our economic wellbeing.