Why do mobs behave in such extreme ways? Each year in the United States we hear about crowds at rock concerts that get so out of hand people are trampled to death, or about riots after a large sporting event that result in severe property damage and injury to numerous people. How can the existence of a surrounding group influence someone’s behavior? How can incorporation into a group cause people to act in manners that contradict their typical attitudes and behaviors?
Groups have incredible effects on individuals’ behaviors, and have been an area of interest in social psychology for years. Psychologists have found that group behavior tends to be more extreme than the typical behavior of its individual members (i.e. if the members of a group tend to be somewhat liberal/conservative, the behavior of the group will be more liberal/conservative than that of all its members). This phenomenon is most clearly seen in the behavior of mobs. A mob is one of the most influential (and overlooked) forces in changing people’s behavior. Social Psychologists attribute this effect to a process of deindividuation, defined as the loosening of normal constraints on behavior when people are in a crowd, leading to an increase in impulsive and deviant acts.
Groups encourage a sense of anonymity among its members, and it is this anonymity that results in “mob psychology” and other anti-social behaviors. When people think they are anonymous, they will behave in anti-social ways because they so not believe they can be singled out among the crowd and be evaluated (hence, the hoods that are worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan not only hide their identity, but also make it easier for them to behave in an anti-social manner). Groups also encourage a diffusion of responsibility for actions taken. Thus, if an individual acts in an anti-social manner while in a group, it is the group’s fault as well as his. This leads to an overall weakening of social influences and self-consciousness. Social norms no longer apply to members of the group, but rather, the group creates its own set of norms to which every member adheres. Inevitably, the result is antisocial behavior on the part of the individual and the group.
Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University studied the effects of this anonymity within a group setting in the 1960’s. Subjects were placed in a room and instructed to give another “subject” shocks (the subject was a confederate of Zimbardo’s and did not actually receive any shocks). One group of subjects were allowed to see and be seen by the victim, while the other group was given Ku Klux Klan-type hoods to wear over their heads. Zimbardo found that the group of subjects who wore the hoods (were anonymous/depersonalized) gave nearly twice as much electric shock as those who did not. An additional study conducted by Watson in 1973 found that, of tribal warriors in Africa, those who wore face paint or other masks while in battle (i.e. depersonalize themselves) are more likely to kill their enemies in battle than those who did not.
The presence of a group influence has a large impact on individual behaviors. A person may find himself in a totally different psychological state than he usually resides. This is mob psychology. Social norms no longer have any effect on individual behavior and there is no longer any fear of evaluation for one’s actions. Increased anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, and the increased energy that results from the existence of a group lead to a weakened self-consciousness, and encourage individuals to behave in ways that would not belong in normal social environments.
So the rule of thumb: Never underestimate the power of the situation. You might be surprised what you would do under certain circumstances.