Mob Mentality: The Madness of the Crowd

“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.

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 in 2014 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.”

Much of the reasoning behind mob mentality appears to be well understood. At a political rally or sporting event, participants can hide behind anonymity — something that is much more easy to do over the internet. Responsibility plays a factor too. Being part of a mob, however unruly, the guilt can be dispersed fairly easily. It’s much easier to deal with if you don’t have to bear the burden of it on your own. Both of these factors, however, are a bit too subjective to be measured by science, so Cikara and her team decided to look elsewhere: the individual’s sense of self. Could it contract when you’re rooting for your favorite sports team?

Fortunately for Cikara, measuring one’s sense of self is easier than it sounds. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brains of their participants. It turns out, when you think about yourself — planning your weekend or fantasizing about driving your new car, the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex lights up. It also goes dormant when you’re in a group with your co-workers working on a project, or playing basketball. In this test, the subjects were asked several questions about morality — both as individuals and when competing as a group.

The medial prefrontal cortex was more inactive in some participants than others, particularly during the group questions. Those with lower levels of activity tended to be the least friendly. Following the questions, participants were then asked to select pictures of their teammates as well as members of the opposing team that would appear in the published paper. The people who showed the least amount of self-reflection picked the most flattering images of themselves, while choosing the ugliest pictures of their opponents. They also had difficulty recalling the questions they were asked when doing a follow-up assessment. Cikara suspects it’s because the questions asked them about their own morality, something they weren’t closely paying attention to at the time of the first survey.

“It’s been hard to get a direct handle on the extent to which people within a group are tapping into their own understanding of things versus the group’s understanding,” said David Rand, a Yale University psychologist who was not involved with the study. “This is a nice way of using neuroimaging to try to get insight into something that behaviorally has been really hard to explore.” It leaves a few questions to answer — mainly, why do we act the way we do in a crowd? There’s plenty of peaceful protests that never turn violent — and in a group that acts out violently, there’s always those that are more guilty than others.

In 2008, researchers at Leeds University decided to investigate what happens when people find themselves engulfed in a crowd. Professor Jens Krause, a behavioral ecologist, and Ph.D. student John Dyer had several groups of randomly assorted people walk up and down a large campus hallway. The only rules: Group members were not allowed to communicate with each other (no talking or signaling by hand), and stay within arms-length of the person next to you. Out of each group, a chosen few were provided with detailed information on how and where to walk. Eventually, the rest of the crowd began to emulate their movement.

“We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd,” said Krause. “But what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn’t realize they were being led by others.” The experiments became more elaborate, with crowds of up to 200 people moving in snakelike formations. It only took as few as 5 percent of informed participants to lead the crowd. Krause also tried moving the position of the informed few, to determine if where they were located had an effect on how long it took for the crowd to organize. The larger the crowd, the fewer individuals it took to have an impact on leadership.

While the results may sound unsettling for some, Krause saw the immediate benefits that this research could have, “At one extreme, it could be used to inform emergency planning strategies and at the other, it could be useful in organizing pedestrian flow in busy areas.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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