“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Henry David Thoreau wrote famously in 1847 before embarking on a trip to Walden Pond, where he lived largely in seclusion for two years. He hoped that somewhere deep in the New England wilderness he’d be able to find his true self, one he felt was lost so easily among the grind of everyday life. Nearly two centuries later, the transcendentalist movement is long gone, but the daily distractions it seems have only gotten significantly greater.
He knew, like we know today, that the individual functions differently when separated from the crowd — though neurological differences may have been far from his mind. In fact, being part of the herd may not be as far removed from nature as Thoreau once thought. After all, how else did our ancestors migrate across great swaths of continent without a collective crowd mentality?
While we probably dread the long lines on the city commute home from work, we’ll probably shuffle through the line, watching each other for directions and social cues. On any given day, you may find yourself trusting a random stranger for directions more than a bus station timetable or a gateway sign. As independent as we might believe ourselves to be — priding ourselves on our innovative new ideas or for just being able to get up without an alarm clock — we’ll find ourselves moving among the herd at some point or other during the day, whether we realize it or not. How we act will also inevitably influence the people around us in ways that we may never be fully aware of.
It would seem that being a part of the herd does have its advantages. After all, there’s strength in numbers — and safety. In the modern era, this conventional wisdom applies to hashtags as well, as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements continue to gain traction, along with their counter movements — and plenty of people adamantly fighting on each side behind a computer screen.
As pundit Lindy West describes the newly interconnected landscape: “I hear people asking, ‘Where is the next generation of the social justice movement?’ ‘Where are all the young feminists and womanists and activists?’ Dude, they’re on the internet.” Crowds do have the ability to affect real change, but their functioning as a group does have the adverse side of human nature, worse than what Thoreau feared.
Dr. Mina Cikara, a sociologist from Carnegie Mellon University, who dedicated her life to studying phenomena like mass communications, became enamored with the concept of crowd mentality after seeing a Yankees game with her husband at their home stadium. Being fans of the Boston Red Sox, they proudly wore ball caps with their team’s insignia to the stadium. This was a mistake. Both Cikara and her husband left the ball field amid taunts and insults from the crowd of fans, but on the way home, she couldn’t help but wonder why they were both singled out for ridicule — insults that got personal beyond their team preference.
“I have never been called names like that in my entire life,” recalls Cikara of her unfortunate trip to New York. She kept this experience in mind when she published her paper on mob mentality with co-author Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience.
Cikara’s experience isn’t too far from the norm when it comes to sporting events — so she wondered what led ordinary people to flip over cars in the wake of victory celebrations, or why well-intended protests can suddenly turn violent — behavior rarely seen by a few isolated people at any given time. Cikara and her team of researchers suspect that the answer lies within the brain that something changes the moment we find ourselves amongst a throng of other faces.
“Although humans exhibit strong preferences for equity and moral prohibitions against harm in many contexts, people’s priorities change when there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ ” explains Saxe. “A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.”