Should we hate the herd? Do groups cause bad behavior?

By Marlous van Ginneken

People often behave in groups in ways they would not think of doing on their own. Group behavior often leads to chaos and destruction. People behave in these negative kinds of ways, because in the group they feel anonymous and less responsible for their actions than when they are alone.

Recently a girl from the Dutch city of Haren turned sixteen and invited her friends via Facebook to come celebrate this [1]. Accidentally she sent out a public instead of private invitation. Eventually over 30.000 Facebook users indicated they would come to the party. It got a lot of attention in the media and got named “Project X Haren” after the movie Project X in which some boys throw a party which gets out of hand because a lot of people hear about it through social media. The party in Haren got out of hand to. Thousands of people travelled there and caused chaos. People threw bottles at the police, cars burned out, shop windows were shattered and goods stolen from the shops. Insurance companies think the “party” caused a damage of one to several million euros.

This party in the Netherlands is no exception. Similar Project X like parties have been held in different countries as well, like Germany and America. In Houston in the US one of these parties even led to the dead of an 18 year old boy [2]. The invitations for this party were also sent by social media. Around a thousand people showed up. The police tried to break the party up. One of the guests started shooting and a boy got killed.

How is it possible that these parties get out of hand so badly? People seem to behave in groups in ways they would never do individually. These parties are an illustration of masses causing chaos, but this kind of destructive group behavior happens more often. Think for example about hooligans causing destruction and injuring each other. During the week these are probably nice well-behaved people or at least better-behaved than when they are together with their fellow hooligans. What is it about groups that makes people act so badly?

People do not feel the same in groups as they do when they are alone. There are two mechanisms that might explain the behavior of people in groups. The first one is anonymity. People feel more anonymous when they are in groups than alone and this makes them engage in more anti-social behavior [3]. The second mechanism is called diffusion of responsibility. This means that people feel less responsible for their actions and the outcomes of their behavior in a group than individually. People feel like the responsibility is spread over the members of the group and therefore people will sooner behave in anti-social behavior [4].

So far, it seems like groups make people behave in more negative ways. People blend in with the crowd and do not feel responsible for what they do anymore. This leads them to act in ways that are anti-social and destructive. But is group behavior always bad or can it have positive consequences as well?

Research on deindividuation suggests that it can. Deindividuation is a state in which people get when they identify with a group. Reduced responsibility for their actions and anonymity make people show behavior that is normally inhibited [5]. This often leads to negative behavior, but can lead to positive behavior as well. According to the psychologists Johnson and Downing (1979) people’s behavior depends on cues they get from the environment. In an experiment people in a group gave shocks to a stranger. The participants were told that they had to wear a uniform to disguise individual differences and took a picture of them in this. The costume looked like either a Ku Klux Klan or a nurse’s outfit. People were told that they had to administer shocks to a stranger as part as an experiment on how people learn and that this stranger would receive the average level of shocks given by the group. Participants only saw pictures of the other group members. In one condition the group members wore name tags on their costume and the participant could see who chose what level of shock. In the deindividuation condition there were no name tags and people couldn’t tell who administered which shock. Groups with a Ku Klux Klan costume increased the level of shocks if the stranger did something wrong, while the participants in the nurse’s costumes decreased the shocks. Deindividuation also had an effect. When people felt anonymous and less responsible for their actions they gave less severe shocks if they wore a nurse’s uniform and more severe shocks if they wore a KKK outfit in comparison to the people who were not anonymous [5].

The study I just described shows that feelings of anonymity and diffused responsibility do not always lead to negative and violent behavior when people are in groups, but can also cause more positive and pro-social behavior. The type of behavior people show is determined by the cues they get from the environment on how to behave. Apparently, at the project X party in Haren there were certain cues that signaled violent and destructive behavior. The authorities made sure that there was a lot of police present in Haren, to control the crowd. But perhaps this backfired. I can imagine that police presence signals to people that there will be aggression and chaos. Otherwise why would the police be there, if there is just a peaceful party going on? Perhaps having a lot of police present to prevent misbehavior, leads people to misbehave.

Literature

[1] van der Zande, M. (2012, September 22). Puinhoop na Facebook-rellen Haren. NOS.            Retrieved from http://nos.nl/artikel/421483-puinhoop-na-facebookrellen-haren.html

[2] Owns, R. & Murphey, C. (2012, March 17). Growing number of “project X” party    copycats lead to arrests nationwide. abcNews. Retrieved from abcnews.go.com

[3] Mathes, E.W. & Guest, T.A. (1976). Anonymity and group antisocial behavior. The             Journal of Social Psychology, 100(2), 257-262.

[4] Mathes, E.W. & Kahn, A. (1975). Diffusion of responsibility and extreme behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(5), 881-886.

[5] Johnson, J.D. & Downing, L.L. (1979). Deindividuation and valence of cues: Effects on      prosocial and antisocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,             37(9), 1532-1538.

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4 thoughts on “Should we hate the herd? Do groups cause bad behavior?

  1. D. van Lieshout

    Interesting point of view in your last alinea. You say that the type of behavior people show is determined by the cues they get from the environment on how to behave, and that the presence of lots of policemen at the Project X party might have been a cue to misbehave. I think you could be right on this one. On Queensday for example, many many many people come together and party, and I have never heard it escalated like it did in Haren. Perhaps people already went to the Project X party with a different mindset, and was it almost impossible (thanks to the heavy police force and the speculations in the media) that this party would NOT escalate.

    Reply
    1. marlous1991 Post author

      Hello D. van Lieshout,
      thank you for your comment. Your comment relates exactly to what I was thinking myself. I think that the environment on Queensday signals that a party is expected, while the police presence signals that it is expected that there will be agression and that the police will have to intervene. If the authorities would have prepared for a party instead of for an angry mob the situation in Haren would not have gotten out of hand so badly. If the cues in the environment point toward a party situation, that is the way people would behave.

      Reply
  2. lieke

    Interesting hypothesis. I think these are the kind of questions that the people who are now investigating this incident need to answer. I also wonder if the two mechanism that you mention are applicable to behavior on the internet. I think they might. In that case it would be very interesting to see witch “environmental cues” are present on the internet.

    Reply
    1. marlous1991 Post author

      Dear Lieke,
      thank you for leaving a comment on my blog.
      I definetely think that these mechanisms can also be applied to bad behavior on the internet. I have actually recently read a paper about this. People often behave on the internet in ways they would not do in real life. They often disclose a lot of personal information or react agressively towards others. According to the author of this paper (Suler, 2004) there are six reasons why people do that. Most of these reasons are either related to anonimity or to feeling less responsible for your online actions that for what you do or say in real life. If you like to read more about this, here is the link to the article: http://lacomunidad.elpais.com/blogfiles/apuntes-cientificos-desde-el-mit/71994_Suler.pdf
      This is similar to bad behavior in groups, which is caused by anonimity and diffusion of responsibility (which also makes people feel less responsible for their actions because the responsibility is divided over the group members). I think whether people behave positively or negatively online is influenced by cues they get from the environment, like in every day life. I therefore agree with you that it would be interesting to look at the cues present on the internet. To prevent negative behavior it would be useful to influence these cues and to make them signal positive behavior. That way people would probably behave in a positive way themselves.

      Kind regards,
      Marlous

      Reply

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