Our Unknown Enemy: Mob Mentality

by Racles Bogdan

There have been times in our lives when we’ve heard the expression ‘if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do the same?’ from our parents or our teachers. We answered with ‘no’ most of the times. The sad fact is that, every now and then, without realizing why, we would jump with our friends. People follow people. It’s been like this for ages. The reason we blindly follow people is because we lose our sense of individuality and become part of a group’s mechanism. Most of the times, there are negative outcomes when this happens. Football fights, military units, witch trials, all of these are examples of why acting without individual thinking is wrong. You can do something about mob mentality.

Let’s analyze the London riots, for example. At the beginning of August 2011 some London districts suffered rioting, looting and arson when thousands took the streets, during a protest that turned violent. A piece of an article found in The Guardian stated:

“Many who participated in the riots were confronted with scenes that challenged their conscience. A 17-year-old from Islington who, on the second night of the riots, looted a branch of Currys in Enfield, described how her feelings changed as the night progressed. When people she knew smashed their way into a hairdresser’s, stealing shampoo and ripping out the basins, she thought: ‘It’s so dumb. I don’t agree with it.’”

Does disagreeing actually matter? Yes, it does. If you see mobs as an irrational phenomenon, the first response is to repress (why reason with those who have no reason?) and second is to look for problems within the communities from which rioters are drawn. There are ways in which you can say “No, I won’t jump”.  Understanding how belonging to a group can influence our thoughts helps us make sense of the behavior that otherwise will appear irrational and has fundamental implications in how we respond to crowd actions.

We should start asking ourselves why is it so easy for humans to act violently when belonging to a group. The idea of mob mentality was first coined by social psychologist Gustave Le Bon [1], when referring to the belief that a group can act as a single individual. This leads most of the time to destructive behavior. The London riots were only the start in a chain of riots that happened in the next three nights all across England. Significant disturbances, involving rioting and looting, were reported in Birmingham, Salford, Liverpool, and Manchester. The capability to control behavior disappears, therefore exposing individuals to contagion. All acts of love, hatred, anger are immediately approved, spread and repeated.

Have you ever been in a group and acted in a way contrary to your ordinary behavior? A man, as part of a group, is a very different individual. When studying the effects of behavior of individuals in a revolution, Le Bon [2] thought that the collective mentalities are very different than personal mentalities. In a mob mentality the individual’s identity disappears, causing anonymity. Simply by being part of a crowd, folks lose all sense of self and all sense of responsibility, and manage to gain power due to the group’s size.

Behavior in a crowd is mostly influenced by anonymity. Nobody knows who you are when you stand next to a large number of people. Diener [3] conducted a study on how anonymity influences ones behavior in a group by observing children that went trick-or-treating on Halloween. The results of the study indicated that children who wore costumes that concealed their identity, or children who went trick-or-treating in a group stole extra candy than when they were alone with the candy bowl. So, anonymity enhances the loss of self-awareness within a group that eases the path to anti-social behavior and encourages individuals to identify with the group. If people don’t know you, there will be fewer consequences for your actions.

Anonymity and loss of individuality eases up the process of behaving anti-social. Festinger, Pepitone and Newcomb’s [4] used the term “deindividuation” to describe the effect of groups on the behavior of an individual. They stated that when belonging to a crowd, a person will be ‘able to indulge in forms of behavior in which, when alone, they would not indulge’. Think about how easy it must have been for the participants at the London riots to loot stores in groups rather than when they are be alone. Including one person in a crowd or a group results in the feeling of anonymity and loss of personal identity, which motivates people to act aggressively or deviate from their usual social behavior.

Humans tend to exhibit certain behavior when they become members of a group. For example, Jeremy Dean stated in his blog ten rules that govern group behavior. Some of them mentioned that a group can shape our conformity, and influence our decision making, or even threaten us with ostracism if we do not agree with the overall decisions made by the group.

Understanding mob mentality can be the first step in stopping the negative outcomes.  The solution lies in preventing deindividuation, rather than punishing the results. For instance, what did the authorities do after the London riots? They started repressing rioters. This was wrong. A different approach should have been taken such as helping individuals become more self-aware. There are experiments with mirrors [5] which have proven that people become more self-aware of their actions. By forcing an individual to see himself, you force him to think about his actions, and that increases self-awareness and decreases deindividuation. This was applicable for preventing riots at football matches, where mirrors and cameras have been placed on the walls stadiums. Additionally, it is important to stop unruly behavior from its early stages. One way to do this is by reinforcing their individual identity. Simply by calling people by their name, pulling them out of a mob and encouraging personal differences in a group can reduce the harmful effects of deindividuation.

If you manage to create non-threatening, non-stressful, and unambiguous situations people may think more clearly about their actions instead of being drawn in by negative group norms.

References

[1]   Le Bon, G., (1896) General Characteristics of crowds – Psychological Law of Their Mental Unity. The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind. Book I, Chapter I.

[2]    Le Bon, G., (1913) The Psychology of Revolutionary Crowds, The Psychology of Revolution, 4, 57-63

[3]    Diener, E., Fraser, S., Beaman, A., & Kelem, R. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-ortreaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 178- 183.

[4]    Festinger, L., Pepitone, A., & Newcomb, T. (1952). Some consequences of deindividuation in a group. Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 382-389.

[5]    Asendorpf, J.B., Warkentin, V., & Baudonniere, P.M. (1996) Self-Awareness and Other-Awareness II: Mirror Self-Recognition, Social Contingency Awareness, and Synchronic Imitation, Developmental Psychology, Vol.32, No, 2,313-321

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18 thoughts on “Our Unknown Enemy: Mob Mentality

  1. Cris

    I was thinking about what actually happens in mob, because I was talking to a friend the other day about the riots. This was very insightful. I thought that a great influence for persons acting this way is the difusion of responsability, like you mentioned. But now I think a great role is played by anonymity. Nobody know your face, so nobody knows if you’ve stolen the candy or if you vandalized a property.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Thank you for your feedback. Indeed, anonymity plays an important role in a groups dynamics and it is one of the important topics that are researched by social psychologists today. For example, anonymity influences the behavior portrayaled on the internet, causing our behavior to be more dis-inhibited. In a study done by Rains (2007) while trying to find out the impact of anonymity, he discovered that it minimizes status differences, liberates team members from a fear of retribution, and makes members feel more comfortable contributing to discussions.

      Rains, S., (2007). The impact of anonymity on perceptions of source credibility and influence in computer mediated group communication. Communication Research, 34(1), 100-125.

      Reply
  2. Ada

    You provide really interesting solution. I’ve never thought about that. I was wondering how can you stop that large number of people from acting aggressively. You have to take the individual and make him feel like a person, emphasize his differences, why he is unique. I think the police should know about this possibility. Maybe they will be able to stop these riots in the future more effectively.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Yes, indeed. Police officers and security institutions should come in contact whit social psychologists more often, when it comes to these sort of behaviors. I do not think that arresting everybody for a long time is the solutions. Each case needs to be considered on its merits and for many communities different types of punishments would be more effective. For example, USA has a good policy in dealing with these sort of problems from aggressors. They apply the “three strikes and you are out” policy, which will make people more aware in the long run. I an individual has two strikes he will be more careful the next time opportunity of manifesting violently arrives and he will not be that prone in engaging into different types of aggressive behavior.

      Reply
  3. Dobos Emilian

    I never thought anonymity could play such an important role in crowd behavior. Like you said, anonymity plays an significant role in disinhibited behavior, probably that’s why it is so easy to be aggressive on the internet. People don’t know you, so you can manifest yourself however you want.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Yes, this is called the online disinhibition effect. People feel indeed more prone to act aggressively because nobody knows them on the internet, and because it is so hard for the rest to find out who they are. For example, in this study, done by Tersca (1998), he found out that anonymity increases disinhibition, thus, violent behavior is easily accessed.

      Reply
  4. Alin V

    I somewhat agree. But try explaining this to the victims or the participants. Both parties will allways exist as long as discontempt and any other frustration manifests it-self in one or more individuals in the same place, at the same time.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      I agree with that. As along as someone is unsatisfied, protest will always take place. I am not saying that understanding the mechanism of a group can stop future riots, but it can sure have an effect on stopping acting aggressively during them. Violence is not the answer. We shouldn’t imitate what the person next to us does, bu we should be more aware of the reasons why we are doing this and stop it. Stop it for our interest (so we don’t get hurt) and stop it for the interest of our fellow man (so they don’t get hurt or their store doesn’t get destroyed). If the victims or the participants would have know what the inner workings of the groups are, and especially knowing before the consequences that could happen, I think they wouldn’t have had a desire to act aggressively anymore.

      Reply
  5. Creohan

    Undestanding how group mentality works can really help you be more aware on how to stop it. I think I am going to start asking myself from now on “if my friends threw a rock, will I do the same?”.You put a really good accent on the importance of anonymity in crowd mentality. But, what do you think about the diffusion of responsibility? Because I saw you mentioned that.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Yes. Diffusion of responsibility is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to fell responsible or take action in the presence of a large number of people. In this blog I was trying to explain what drives individuals to act like the person sitting next to them. Diffusion of responsibility is often better explained by the bystander effect . Anonymity is the main influence in riots. For a better explanation of the diffusion of responsibility check out this blog

      Reply
      1. Creohan

        Thank you, for your answer. It was quite insightful.Perhaps a solution to this problem might be, the implementation of laws such as California’s Good Samaritan Law. It’s hard to say really. But I do believe that we can overcome this problem as long as we raise awareness, like you just did in this article.

  6. Pablo Flores

    Interesting article I must say. Personally I find riots to be an act of primal thinking, which you say is part of the mob mentality. This helps to shed light on the field of public security, by tackling certain problems from a different perspective such as sociology. By analyzing the causes and possible solutions, for example making the individual self-aware, the in depth study of behavioral sciences might help solve some of our current socio-political issues and their implications.

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Of course, when talking about public safety sociology and social psychology play an important role. In order to find solutions to social issues we first have to identify the cause of the problems, and after that look for ways of improving in or dismissing it. For example, there are also other solutions for this particular problem.
      Firstly, media plays a great influence in advertising the issue. In the London riots, for example, there were recorded 3000 individuals to participate in the protest, out of which nearly 1000 manifested themselves violently, which goes to show that some people grasped the idea that violence is not the answer. Television and newspapers did not focus that much on this, they promoted more stories about violence, which, again, spread the word around and caused more violence.
      An article in The Guardian stated:

      The history of riots teaches us that the removal of hope results in extreme behaviour. The hopeless, the marginalised, the emotionally and financially impoverished don’t express themselves by writing to their MP

      Another way, that I know from experience, is to go to a protest with a mind set that there will be no violence. If you think that everthing is going to be peaceful you will be more aware when an aggressive behavior starts. Simply by yelling “No violence” you can make individuals more aware that things are going wrong and that they should stop.
      Group behaviors can be easily manipulated if you understand their inner workings and if you step up to the cause and try to prevent them from going violent

      Reply
  7. lentzi

    Great article, I’ve really enjoyed it. I think at one point in out lives, we’ve all experienced a type of mob mentality effect. Didn’t know about the mirror experiments, quite ingenious. 😀

    Reply
    1. bogdanracles Post author

      Thank for you comment lentzi. Yes, I was quite impressed with the mirror experiments myself. They had a great impact on social psychology. There is a funny history behind the mirror test. It was a test developed by Gordon Gallup Jr. based on an experiment by Charles Darwin. Darwin went to a zoo and set a mirror in front of orangutan to test his reations. He found out that the orangutan was making different facial expressions at himself in the mirror, which was concluded by him to be either the fact that the primate was making faces at another animal or just playing with a new “toy”. So if certain animals are aware that the reflection in the mirror is themselves, that means that they have an idea about the self. HUmans tend to fail the mirror test for the first 18 months of their lives.

      On a more contemporary note, a consultancy agency with background in social psychology, managed to reduce violence in a city from the Netherlands. I think it was in Rotterdam. The police reported high violence during the night, especially in bus stations, due tot the fact that probably individuals were going home after a night out and were drunk and aggressive. They contacted social psychologist, and following their advice, they installed mirrors in the bus stations, and found a significant decrease in violence over the course of next weeks. This is clear evidence that violence can decrease when people come in contact with their reflection in the mirror.

      Hope this information helps you understand better the effects of the mirror on self awareness. As a future reading, I would suggest you have a look at Asendorf’s (1996) paper.

      Asendorpf, J.B., Warkentin, V., & Baudonniere, P.M. (1996) Self-Awareness and other-Awareness II: Mirror self-recognition, social contingency awareness, and synchronic imitation, Developmental Psychology, 32(2),313-321.

      Reply
  8. ivella

    Nice article and nice title as well. Mob mentality is indeed our enemy and I think many people are aware of this. Although I think this mentality will never change, we should not lose faith in humanity and its power of self-control. As you mentioned above, with the mirror experiment, I belive the personal example can be a great way to overcome this behaviour problem. Good job! 🙂

    Reply
  9. tastaturaqwerty

    The herd mentality is our home when we stop to be ourselves because to be yourself it is a risk that not many people are ready to assume it too many times in their lives.

    Reply

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