I’m an expert in crowd behaviour – don’t be fooled that everyone queueing in London is mourning the Queen | Stephen Reicher

Britain is in mourning. This is affirmed every time we turn on the television and see the huge numbers of people watching royal processions, or willing to queue for long hours to file past the Queen’s casket. They have gathered, we are told, “to pay their respects”. They are there “to thank the Queen”. Above all, they are “united in grief”. In this way, a picture is built up of a homogenous national community defined by its love of monarch and monarchy. But things are not that simple.

I am part of a team of social psychologists who have long been interested in collective behaviour, and we are investigating the crowds at the various ceremonial events in Edinburgh and London. We are interested in why people gather, how they experience these gatherings and the consequences – both for the individual and for society – of their presence. The first thing we have learned is that any attempt to reduce crowd participation to a single, universal motivation is a distortion. People come along for many different and mixed reasons, not all of which involve allegiance to the monarchy.

Of course, substantial numbers do feel that allegiance. Those who identify strongly as British, and who see the Queen as the embodiment of Britishness, are attending for the simple reason that they see it as an obligation to do so. Attendance is an affirmation of who they are, and not attending would be a denial of their identity. Moreover, as with any pilgrimage, the fact that it is gruelling is not offputting. It is precisely what makes it a meaningful sign of commitment and belonging. For these people, the loss of the monarch is experienced as a personal death. It is grieved profoundly.

Others may not have the same level of investment in the Queen, or the same intensity of emotion. But they recognise the commitment, the service, the lifelong work ethic of the Queen – values they endorse even if they don’t necessarily endorse what it was she served. They attend in respect. After all, in our culture, there is a strong norm of not speaking ill of the dead.

But then there are those, whether royalist or not, for whom the royal family constitutes a canvas on to which they project the issues of their own lives – be it painful rifts or tensions or moments of joy and celebration. What happens in the lives of the royals invokes events in their own lives. The death of the Queen makes them think of the death of their own family members and others close to them. These people may grieve through the Queen, but not necessarily for the Queen.

And then there are many whose presence in the Queen’s mourning crowds has precious little to do with the Queen. They simply recognise that these are events of major significance. If the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace brings along spectators to view the spectacle, the changing of the monarch brings them along in spades. They want to be able to say: “I was there. I am part of history.”

Linked to this, people want to be able to say: “We were there.” Parents can tell their children in later years: “You and your granny were both at the Queen’s funeral procession,” after Granny herself has died. Shared attendance at such a meaningful event serves to bind families together across the generations.

All this only begins to scratch the surface of what people are telling us about why they are at the processions and in the queues. Yet, as I argued at the outset, the media constantly replace this plurality of voices with a narrative of universal respect. If ever a dissenting voice is heard, it is as an exception that reinforces the general rule. Thus, reporting on a protest against King Charles’s accession in Edinburgh stressed that this was atypical and contrasted with all the other thousands of people gathered, supposedly, in grief and gratitude.

What makes this all the more significant is that it is not just the crowds who are unified in fealty. The crowds are represented as the concrete embodiment of the national community. “They” are “us”. The fact that they are mourning means that Britain is mourning. We are a nation united in support of the monarch. It follows that anyone who departs from this view is not of “us” and risks exclusion from the national community.

This has a chilling effect. It means that certain things (such as challenging the hereditary transfer of power and wealth) cannot be said, not only through direct repression (as in the arrest of those expressing republican views) but also through self-censorship. For if we are led to believe that everyone else loves the monarchy, and demands due deference to the monarch and the monarchy, we will be more reluctant to challenge such views for fear of a backlash; and that in turn will reinforce the impression that these views are universal – what has been called a “spiral of silence”.

What we are seeing in Britain right now – and what makes the nature and narratives of the mourning crowds so significant – is not just an expression of nationhood but an exercise in the making of nationhood. What makes this exercise so effective is that a loyalist and deferential version of Britishness is not simply imposed on us from the top. It draws on genuine and deep emotions among many millions of people – myself included. I was moved and saddened by the death of Elizabeth, not because I am a royalist but because it made me remember my own mother. And I felt for Harry, who arrived too late, just as I did, hearing she had died while on my way to see her.

However, these feelings were interpreted and exploited in a way that equated feeling sadness on thinking about Elizabeth’s death with joy at the unquestioned accession of Charles. Equally, crowd participation, whatever its actual motivation, has been reflected back to us as a collective endorsement of the monarch as head of state and of the Commonwealth (leaving no space in the nation for republicanism or anti-colonialism). All in all, it is a more modern and more subtle form of “taking the king’s shilling”, whereby what seems at the time like a rather modest act leads to lifelong impressment in the king’s service.