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Mob mentality

NATO protesters advocate for equal housing in a peaceful march last Sunday.

With the conclusion of the NATO summit in Chicago Monday evening, thousands of protestors from around the world are making their way back home.

When large groups of people come together, they can lose their sense of self-awareness and catch a mob mentality. Mob mentality can set in at protests - such as those organized in response to the NATO Summit in Chicago - or at a clearance sale. Social scientists give tips on how to avoid succumbing to mob mentality and to recognize warning signs of when crowds are getting out of control.

The concept of mob mentality first developed in the 1800s, when French sociologist Gustave Le Bon wrote “The Crowd. He coined the phrase ‘mob mentality’ “to describe the idea that the mob seemed to act as if it were a single thing, unified by a shared sense of purpose,” said Don Forsyth, professor at The Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.

“Nowadays mob mentality pretty much just means that people do things in crowds and mobs that are stupid,” actions they might typically avoid, Forsyth said. But people can lose self-identity in a mob “and don't think about their own principles.”

One theory for why this kind of group think comes about is the social psychology concept of "deindividuation."

Phil Zimbardo, a social scientist most noted for his classic 1971 study of people enacting the roles of prisoners and guards, is the primary developer of the deindividuation theory, according to Forsyth.

This theory implies “that with the right kind of social circumstances — anonymity, submersion in a large crowd, emotional arousal created through contagion — individuals become so caught up in the group experience that their individuality is temporarily minimized,” Forsyth said.

“Conformity increases in mobs, as people do what everyone else is doing,” Forsyth said. “So, if the mob develops unusual ‘situational norms,’” such as burning cars, “then the majority of the group members will do that — resulting in what looks like mob mentality.” And “in most cases, the strong mob actions occur when people are part of a group with which they identify.”

According to Eitan Schwarz, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, survival instincts may also play a large role in why people engage in mob mentality.

“Our mammalian brains are wired to some extent," Schwarz says, "to automatically trigger imitation, and this is amplified by how many other individuals we see,” Schwarz said.

When group leaders increasingly stimulate members’ senses of anger or righteousness, it is more likely those members will succumb to deindividuation, according to Schwarz.

Eventually, “a point is reached where we are so adrenalized that our fight or flight circuits are activated, overcoming more refined judgment,” Schwarz said. “The less an individual is ruled by reason, by his nature, the more prone he is to get involved.”

But just as mob mentality can contribute to destruction, it can also lead to positive change, according to Schwarz.

“There are similar tendencies to gather for doing good, like marathons, walks and concerts for good causes, where we mirror each other,” Schwarz said. “This is a healthy use of mob mentality.”