Kim, Social Psychology, and Mob Mentality
The teacher caught Kim sneaking away from recess to eat other student’s lunches. This was the third incident in the past week. Kim couldn’t help that she was always hungry. Food was all she could think about and she never seemed to have enough.
She wore the same gray sweatshirt every single day, one covered in spaghetti stains and smeared with peanut butter. Her hair was knotted and she always had crumbs crusted onto her face. The other students made fun of her, not only because of her appearance, but also because they were angry at her for eating their lunches.
One day, as students got off the bus, they started chasing Kim toward her house. They called her names and threw rocks at her. Everyone joined in, even the boy who usually walked home alone.
The boy found himself sucked into the mindless mob of angry students chasing the poor girl down the street. The power of the group was so overwhelming, that he barely registered Kim’s cries for help. By the time they had reached her house, he had thrown a rock without hesitation.
Kim’s grandmother burst through the front door. She saw Kim and the horde of students behind her, each with stones in their tiny fists. She screamed at the kids. Her voice quivered with fear and anger. “How could you! She’s a little girl! This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!”
Everyone dropped their rocks. Some kids ran away, others started crying immediately. The boy who got sucked into the frenzy remained motionless. He saw Kim cowering into her grandmother’s chest. He saw the grandmother’s eyes filled with tears of pain and sadness.
Kim’s grandmother took her inside, leaving the boy all alone once again. He stood there for a long time—wanting to apologize, wanting to cry, wanting to scream. There was nothing he could do. Nothing could ever change what had just been done. He put his head down and walked away. This moment haunted him for the rest of his life.
Have you ever acted differently because of the people around you?
Kurt Lewin, founder of Social Psychology
Why was the boy so quick to join the group? There is a reason most people act a certain way in drama, literature, and real life events. Throughout this article we are going to look at these people as if they were characters in a story. In analyzing their character, we may analyze their behavior in relationship to their background, environment, culture, and community.
While these elements are major factors in shaping a person's choices or identity, they are just a small part of what goes into analyzing their character.
Which brings us to today’s topics: Social Psychology and mob mentality. Social Psychology focuses on how people think about, influence, and relate to one another in certain situations. Basically, it focuses on the power of situations and the effect situations have on any given individual or group.
Social Psychologists wonder whether people act the way they do because of their personality or because of their situation. This means that characters are they way they are, or act the way they act, because of their personality, which we said is shaped by their background, environment, culture, and community.
Let’s add another approach to analyzing character. Let me suggest that any given character can be analyzed not only by their personality traits, but also by the situations they are placed in. A situation is not only a location or a surrounding environment, but also a set of circumstances in which one may find him or her self at any given moment. This type of analysis is called the attribution theory, which suggests that we can explain someone’s behavior by analyzing their stable, enduring personality traits and the situation at hand.
What Social Psychologist have found is that, often times, situations make characters or people act a certain way. The reason for this is because of the types of groups that are formed in these situations. Depending on the situation, people may join together in what is commonly called a mob or a herd.
When mobs form, they create a powerful influential factor that shapes a character’s or person’s identity. Mob/herd mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors, follow trends, and/or purchase specific items. The desire to join in on this group or, at the very least, be recognized by the group, is an example of conformity.
The Bystander Effect
Conformity describes how we adjust our behavior or thinking to follow the behavior or rules of the group we belong to. Typically, people conform because a various social influences or desires. Some of these influences and desires are respect for authority, a fear of being different, a fear of rejection, or a desire for approval. Once we join a group, we are likely to conform to or comply with whatever the group decides, in order to fuel our need to be liked or feel like we belong.
The desire to conform to a group is stronger than you think. Many times, people become part of a group and or mob without even knowing. Let me give you an example:
Have you ever been at a performance of some kind and joined in on the applause even though you didn’t think the performance was that great? We’ve all been there. We were snapped out of a daze by the clapping hands of our neighbors. Without thinking or considering otherwise, we joined in on the group’s clapping and applause. Furthermore, if someone stands and applauds and is followed by several others, you can bet that the majority of the crowd will eventually start standing and applauding to follow the leader of the movement or avoid the awkwardness of being unique.
The automatic response to conform to the group is called automatic mimicry. Automatic mimicry is when someone follows along with a crowd, such as laughing, clapping, or nodding, without thinking to question their actions or behavior.
This behavior is quite interesting to psychologists. They want to know why humans follow a crowd so easily. One reason for this behavior can be understood if we look at the crowd not as a bunch of random people joined together, but rather as a mob that has literally lost its mind.
Although the aforementioned example was not one of violence, typically a mob is simply seen as a large crowd of people. If you want to get technical, a mob is more specifically a group of people joined together with the intent to start trouble or violence. However, for our sakes, from here on out, let’s just assume all groups are a type of mob and that the people who join in fall prey to mob mentality.
When an individual joins a mob, they experience a phenomenon known as deindividuation. Deindividuation is the loss of self-awareness and restraint.
To better understand these concepts, let us go back to our original example of the standing, applauding audience at a performance. In this context or setting the individuals, one by one, quickly lose their capacity for being self-aware. Without knowing what they are doing, they can easily join in on the applause, stand up, or even cheer. Even if an individual does restrain themself from joining in on the standing and/or clapping, they will likely feel very awkward and have a strong desire to conform to the rest of the group.
Having conformed to the mob, it will be an extreme struggle to do anything aside from what the mob desires. Whatever the mob decides is typically called "groupthink". What this means is that the mob, having lost all sense of order or proper conduct, will make decisions that might not be logical or reasonable for either the individuals or the group, as a whole, at the time.
An example of groupthink can be seen with rioters. A riot is a violent disturbance of peace by a mob. When part of a riot, people act completely different than their typical personality might suggest. Even the nicest, most peaceful people can get caught up in the mob mentality and eventually end up flipping cars, looting stores, or creating other kinds of ruckus.
Why are the rioters acting this way? Well, on one hand, having become part of a mob, they have been deindividuated, meaning they’ve lost their sense of self, personal identity, and restraint. In other words, they have literally lost their minds. On another level, the rioters are experiencing groupthink which makes them form illogical conclusions.
Here, the group thinks that what they are doing is acceptable, reasonable, or perhaps even necessary. They may justify their actions, saying that the riot was necessary for the greater good or that it supports their cause in some way.
For more information about how individuals and groups spin their negative actions in a positive light, look at Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Groupthink isn’t always negative. When mobs form, they can direct their energy in two main ways. The first is the road of morally acceptable behavior. Morality is the questioning of what is right or wrong in any given situation. If a mob intends to act morally, then, because it’s a mob and because they work together, their actions are amplified, which means their sense of moral conviction is strengthened.
In other terms, mobs that intend to do good, end up being altruistic, which means that the people become unselfish and caring for others.
For example, imagine a church or volunteer group working in an area of poverty to build schools or homes for needy children. Working together, the actions of the individuals that make up the group will be amplified, meaning that after their job is done, the group will likely continue to help out for the sake of others. As the mob dissipates, and people regain their individuality, the individuals will walk away feeling proud and satisfied.
On the other hand, if a mob forms with malevolent or negative intent, then their negative actions will be amplified, causing even greater damage than would likely occur by any given individual. As the mob dissipates, the people will walk away angry and unsatisfied.
Once the mob does break apart, the people regain their individuality. At this point, people who formed the negative mob will start to realize the damage that they’ve done. If these people are generally good individuals, then they will likely try to justify their actions in order to more closely align their actions with their beliefs about their own individual personality. Again, this justification of negative actions to fit our preconceived notions about our personality is called Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
All throughout literature and real life, characters and people are influenced by mob mentality. Now, you can recognize the moment you start to become deindividualized. Hopefully next time this happens, you can resist the mob and maintain your individuality.
© 2017 Luke Holm