Crowd behavior

In the months following the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C. in 2021. several defendants claim that their crimes are not their fault. According to their defenders: The crowd made them do it.

At least for some of the them, the defense strategy failed and they were found guilty on multiple charges. However, it all begs the question: Can crowds really make people behave in ways that are deeply at odds with their values? If so, are any of us immune to collective behavior?

Contagion theory

As early as the late 1800s, the French scientist Gustave Le Bon argued that when in a large crowd, people can lose their ability to think rationally. the crowd he wroteserves as a hypnotic influence that causes otherwise rational people to become violent.

Known as the “contagion theory,” Le Bon’s reasoning was used as defensive strategy in 1993 to explain why two men beat up a truck driver during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. This time, it partially works, as the men escaped the most serious charges. But when it was used again after January 6, it had less success.

Read more: Why are emotions contagious?

The science of crowd behavior

The thing is, the premise has never been scientifically tested and has fallen out of favor among social psychologists.

“Crowds can influence individual behavior, but I don’t think anyone in social psychology would argue that we are therefore not responsible for our actions,” says Jared B. Kenworthy, a professor of social psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Arlington.

Examples of collective behavior

Whether or not someone engages in large group illegal behavior depends on whether they share an identity with those around them. A lone Philadelphia Eagles fan might refuse to join a group of Kansas City Chiefs fans tearing down the rafters. That person may even be convicted, thinking, “I can’t believe they’re doing this!”

However, that same Eagles fan might feel inclined to throw full beer mugs at the Chief’s mascot, KC Wolf, assuming other Eagles fans do the same.

“If you’re in a group of people that you identify with, then whatever they’re doing is almost by definition acceptable, and you’re going to be susceptible to that,” says Kenworthy. “The prerequisite is that you have to identify with that group of people.”

These shared identities can include any point of common interest, including political beliefs, national identity, ethnicity and race, and, yes, your sports team of choice.

Read more: The psychology behind cults

Get caught against the reward

Most people wouldn’t throw a brick through a store window, race inside, grab as many items as possible, and then run back out. In part, they know that there is a high probability that they will be caught.

However, let’s say someone else has already thrown a brick through the store window and there are already dozens of people inside grabbing as much as they can carry. Now it feels like someone else is responsible for the crime. It can also make you feel like an anonymous face in a crowd, which reduces your perceived risk of getting caught, says Tamara D. Herold, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If the crowd is cheering you on, illegal behavior can feel exciting, says Herold.

“It’s not like we’re losing our minds,” Herold says. “It’s not that we lose our ability to reason. It’s not that we lose who we are in terms of our core essence. It is that we are influenced by our environment.

Sociology of collective behavior

As we watch the rowdy behavior of the crowd on our televisions, many of us smugly think something like, “I would never. What is wrong with these people?’

But that may be sheer hubris.

“If there’s one fairly predictable lesson that comes out of social psychology, it’s that we’re poor predictors of our own behavior,” Kenworthy says.

If you ask people before a noisy event how they would behave, most will probably tell you that they would never hurt anyone or destroy property – because they know these things are considered socially undesirable.

“But when we’re actually in the situation, it becomes a different story,” Kenworthy says.

How to protect your behavior from the crowd

Assuming an arrest isn’t something you want to see in your future, consider the following before going to a crowded event.

  • Know your weaknesses. Think about your behavior in the past when you were part of a group, suggests Carolina Estevez, a clinical psychologist with Infinite Recovery. Have there been times when you acted impulsively or allowed yourself to be influenced by others around you? Use this information to develop strategies to avoid these pitfalls in the future, she says.
  • Think about your values. Know what behavioral boundaries you will not cross, regardless of the circumstances. If you’re willing to cross certain boundaries depending on the circumstances — for example, you might tackle someone to stop them from hurting someone else — know what those circumstances are ahead of time.
  • Have an exit plan. Think about the situations that might arise during an event and come up with a plan to deal with them, Kenworthy suggests. What will you do if the mob attacks bystanders? Stealing things? Destroying property? Does he panic and run, trampling everyone in his path? How would you break away from this behavior?
  • Connect with the crowd during the lull. By talking about other common interests ahead of time, you will create connections. “That way, if you need to ask for help to facilitate peace and safety, the crowd becomes a force multiplier,” Herold says.

Read more: Shame and the rise of the social media outrage machine

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