This is the third and final instalment in the trilogy of Frankenstein inspired posts (don’t worry, there will be other super cool science posts coming up on awesome, slightly science fiction related themes like regeneration, de-extinction, hypnosis and mind control, the future of prosthetics, and more!) Here we focus not on the fictional creature but on the very real concept of mobs. The violent flock with their pitchforks who terrified the poor creature, trying to burn the lab down. Not so different from some of the images we regularly see in the media today of mass protests.
Everyone will have experienced so called ‘mob mentality’ at some point. Crowds at football games, concerts, angry gatherings on the platform when the train is delayed. Riots, flash mobs, parades and pilgrimages. Even just a group of friends coming together. Large gatherings invoke distinct psychological phenomena, with individuals often becoming much less inhibited and more cooperative.
A depiction of crowd psychology in action in 16th century Baltimore | WikiCommons
‘Mob’, ‘crowd’, ‘herd’ or ‘gang’ psychology has been an area of scientific interest since the 19th century, but it has been rooted within us since early man formed tribes. The earliest theories were proposed by French scientists such as Gustave Le Bon, who published The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind way back in 1895. In it, he noted several characteristics of groups; irritability, inability to reason, increased emotional responses and decreased individuality.
“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct.”
Gustave Le Bon | The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind
The most famous of the psychological experiments highlighting the crowd concept is probably the Stanford Prison Experiments, led by Robert Zimbardo. Zimbardo took 70 ordinary men and separated them into guards and prisoners to simulate a real prison. Within a few days, gangs formed by the guards had wreaked terror on the prisoners, turning abusive and violent. Individually, these men were normal, upright citizens. Together, things turned ugly.
Trailer for the 2015 film dramatization of the experiment | YouTube
Why do crowds have this effect? Le Bon pinned it down to three main factors – anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion. Anonymity leads to a loss of feelings of personal responsibility (‘everyone was doing it, not my fault’) and decreased inhibitions. Contagion is the spread of behaviours and ideas through the crowd, and suggestibility is the means by which contagion happens: the coalescing of minds and increased cooperativity of the crowd.
Herd psychology is not always bad though. Recent studies have found that there’s not actually a loss of individuality upon crowd formation, rather individuals become more cooperative. And this can lead to beautiful things – just look at this awesome flashmob, or think of crowdfunding charitable events like Comic Relief. What’s more, people tend to be happier in a crowd. Back in 2012, researchers studied a huge religious gathering, and found that participants recorded a longterm increase in health and happiness. Crowds can be tools for social justice or sources of joy like huge dance festivals.
And like the old saying, two heads are better than one, crowds tend to be smarter than individuals. Recent studies have found that ‘egalitarian’ groups (where each member has equal influence) are considerably more accurate than individuals when it comes to forecasts and predictions. Studies like this explain why it’s good to have panels and boards in business, rather than pure hierarchical dictatorships. Although if you throw someone more influential into the mix, the suggestibility of the crowd may lead to decreased accuracy, so there’s not always wisdom in numbers.
Mob mentality is not necessarily good or bad. Activism, cults, revolution and riots – crowd psychology has influenced the world for better and for worse. But maybe next time you find yourself in a crowd, take a look at your behaviour and see if you can identify any mob mentality in your thoughts or actions.
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