How a mob mentality forms, for good or ill
When news outlets around the country recently reported that a man had been killed by an angry mob in Austin, Texas, the story triggered some pretty scary mental images. Even after many errors in the original report were corrected and the estimated cast of thousands was revised down to a group of less than 20 people, the emotions conjured by the initial reports remained. Clearly, mob violence is something we fear. But how much of what we’re fearing is fact?
The Madding Crowd? Far From It.
The study of how people think within a group is commonly referred to as “crowd psychology.” It’s a subject of research that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but according to social historian Erika King, those early studies weren’t as scientific as one might have hoped. A professor of political science at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Mich., King has studied and written extensively on the fear of the crowd and the sociologists who first tried to make sense of crowd behavior. She says most of those early researchers had a political agenda that made them more prone to dehumanizing people who participated in mass gatherings.
“Many of them were worried about democracy,” King says. “They didn’t like it and they propagated this perception that, in a group, people become emotional animals—that thought and reason disappears.”
But today we know that old image of the savage masses isn’t an accurate representation of what’s really happening. Professor Steven Reicher, who studies social psychology and the behavior of crowds at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, says that, contrary to popular belief, crowds—even violent ones—aren’t acting out of an animal-like irrationality. Instead, he says, under certain circumstances people may be incited to set aside their individual interests in favor of those of a group with whom they’ve come to identify. Goals, morals, and reason don’t disappear—they simply change.
Reicher uses the example of subway commuters. Usually they think as individuals, even going so far as to try to ignore each other in a cramped space. But if the train broke down for a half hour and the subway officials offered no explanation, those same people would begin to bond; joking, talking, and sharing food. “People go from thinking of themselves as individual commuters to thinking ‘We are commuters and the train company is our common enemy,’” he says.
Bad, Good, And In-Between
That’s not to say, of course, that such psychologically bonded groups can’t be dangerous. It all depends on how the group expects its members to act. Reicher uses another example here—sports teams and their fans. At a football or baseball game you’re supposed to be passionate and loyal. You’re supposed to connect psychologically with your team and with other fans who support it. Those behaviors make sports fun, allowing you to feel that when the team wins, you win. But it also has a dark side. “If there’s an attack or insult made on the group, you can take that personally, too,” Reicher says.
Under particularly tense circumstances, an insult to a team can quickly escalate into a brawl between two groups of people, all of whom feel personally assaulted. When that happens, the crowd can be very difficult to stop. Reicher says there are really only two ways, outside of massive brut force, to grind violence like this to a halt.
First, someone in the group—if they’re skilled and charismatic—can convince their friends that it’s within the group’s best interest not to be violent. Reicher says this has happened among British soccer fans who have calmed potential outbursts by reminding both sides that they’re part of a bigger group (soccer fans as a whole) that will lose face if a fight breaks out.
The second way to calm a crowd is to remember that, even though it looks like a cohesive unit, there are still distinct subgroups that may not want to be violent. Reicher says this tactic is particularly useful for police. If they can appeal to the moderates and form a bond with them, they have a better chance of calming the situation. But a violent police reaction can drive moderates to side with radicals and create a bigger problem.
So why are we, apparently, hardwired to bond with other people in a way that can—and does—lead to violence?
According to Reicher and King, it’s because that kind of bonding can lead to good as well.
Psychologically bonded groups, in the form of popular movements, are responsible for some of the greatest social achievements of the 20th century--from the eight-hour workday to the civil rights movement. Here, the same changes in logic and priorities that foster soccer riots served to help individuals endure hardship for the good of the group and, Reicher says, even enabled the kind of cohesive non-violent protests led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Maggie Koerth-Baker’s work has appeared in AARP magazine, The Associated Press and Health magazine.