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Mob Mentality: The Science Behind Why It Happens

Updated on October 26, 2014
Why do people go crazy in a mob?
Why do people go crazy in a mob?

Our Brains Are Wired To Follow The Crowd

Do you consider yourself an independent individual, proud to stand apart from the crowd, sure you are making your decisions and are not influenced by the masses, or what is currently the fashion? Do you think you can trust yourself to stay within your own moral code, and be true to your beliefs? Do you ever wonder how people succumb to the terrible influence of apparently evil mobs, and participate in horrendous, violent or criminal behaviour? Do you think that there is no way you could fall under the influence of a mob mentality? The bad news is our brains are wired to conform to a group or crowd, no matter how horrendous their intentions may be. The good news is, new research shows we can simply say no and stay true to ourselves.

We all conform to some extent. Let’s use something innocuous as an example. Have you ever been to a play or concert, that was, say, at best, adequate? At the end of the play two or three people stand up and applaud madly. Then maybe two or three more join them. You look uncomfortably around, scan the crowd, not sure quite what to do. Will the first few stander uppers be left on their own, looking a little foolish? Or will the crowd join them? Will you join them? If the crowd does and you don’t, you will you run the risk of looking silly, or worse, stingy with your praise, or worse yet, appear to be a chump who doesn’t have the sophistication to appreciate this fine piece of art.

This Was Considered Great Beauty


Fashion Is Herd Mentality

Fashion is another example. Remember the checked bell bottoms, side burns, orange shag carpets, and avocado green appliances of the seventies? We roll our eyes and laugh at those styles today, but are our current styles really any better? Are we really any better at determining what is attractive now? Think of the current trend of wearing baggy jeans halfway down your butt and a baseball cap worn side ways. Is that really attractive? Yet millions of people dress just like that and are considered to be very stylish. At one time Chinese women suffered excruciating pain by binding their feet and crippled themselves for the rest of their lives for what was, at the time, considered beautiful. Are our own ideas of beauty any less weird? Women, who appear to be on the brink of death by starvation, massive breasts filled with saline, huge lips filled with collagen: are these things truly more beautiful than deformed feet?

Moral Mob Mentality

How about moral and cultural standards? Not very long ago slavery was considered normal, and just fine, a routine part of business and commerce. It wasn’t until 1865 it was abolished in the USA. And the Africans enslaved each other as well, long before the Europeans showed up and they also sold each other to the slave traders. But they are not alone. Slavery has been around since biblical times and has been practised in almost all societies in history. Today, we are horrified such a thing could be apart of human history, but are we really morally superior to our ancestors? Or were our ancestors victims of their need to conform and avoid social isolation and therefore immune to the compassion that that would make that behavior impossible? Factory farms are a way of life in our modern world and most people think nothing of it when they buy their steak and chicken breasts at the grocery store, but will there come a day when future generations are equally horrified at the horrendous, nightmarish lives the animals we consume live? How about the way we treat the environment? Will future generations look back at us, as we do, say, the generations that enjoyed watching Christians being fed to lions as a way to pass an afternoon, or watch a witch burning, and let’s pack a picnic and get the kids dressed in their Sunday best? Common practise in days of old.

Weirdos And Trail Blazers

Think of how we think about those who don’t conform to current social standards. If they are not conforming in ways that earns our approval they are socially shunned, laughed at, called weird, odd or peculiar and maybe even bullied. If they inspire others to conform to them they are called trail blazers, forward thinkers, pioneers and catalysts.

Why Do We Do It?

So why do we go along with these things? From insincere standing ovation, too cruel and irresponsible behaviour, too contorting our bodies to adhere to current ideas of beauty, our brain is wired for us to conform.

Conforming Actives Reward Center Of Our Brain

A recent study done at Basel University in Switzerland by Vasily Klucharev used an MRI machine to scan the brains of people as they were asked to rate the attractiveness of faces. Afterwards they were informed of the average rating of each face. When they were told their opinions did not conform to the average the “error” signal in their brain was activated. Most changed their opinion and when they did, the reward center of the brain was activated.

In another interesting study done by Chris Frith and Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn at Aarhus University in Denmark found that the reward centers of the brains of the participants were activated if an “experts” rating of a pop song agreed with their own. “That shared opinion is a reward like food or money. And it has the power to influence behaviour”, says Campbell-Meiklejohn

Teenagers Rebelling To Conform

Teenagers are the most conformist of all, although they sure like to think they are renegades. Think about the “Love-In” sixties. Sure, they were rebelling against current standards of the time, but, at the same time, they were conforming to their peer group with their clothing, attitudes and free living, free loving life style. We even conform to each other with language. Groovy then, awesome now.

The Mother Of All Mobs: War
The Mother Of All Mobs: War | Source

Conforming To Kill

So can we take this need of ours to be socially accepted and apply it to violent and destructive mob mentality such as riots, gangs and the mother of all mob mentality, war? You bet! Take military groups for instance. They are taught to be the ultimate conformers. Dress alike, look alike, walk alike, do what you are told when you are told and never question your “superiors”. For this they are called heroes, given guns and are encouraged to murder and torture their fellow human beings. The reward centers in their brains are going off the chart. So much so, that they will commit acts they never knew themselves capable of.

Losing Self Awareness In A Crowd

There is a little more science to explain why people will act in ways that go against their basic morals and beliefs. Tamara Avant, Psychology Program Director at South University in Savannah, says that when people are part of a group they can deindividuate, (lose their self awareness and sense of individuality), and get caught up in the emotional excitement and indulge in behaviours they would not engage in alone. They may not feel personally responsible for their violence as they perceive the violent action as “the group’s”. The bigger the mob, or group, the more they can lose their self awareness.

Beating Your Reptilian Brain. Make Your Own Choices

So does this mean we are doomed to act like thugs and behave like violent sheep? Can we think for ourselves and not follow the pack? Yes, we can and it is easy. Being aware is enough. Know that when you refuse to conform your brain is going to alert you with “Error! Error! Undo immediately and reward me!” Be aware that this is the reptilian part of your brain kicking in from days when conformity to the tribe was literally a life or death choice. It will pass. Very quickly. So go ahead and be a renegade! Next time you are at a not so great play and the multitude leap to their feet to applaud, just sit there. Will people stare? Maybe, so what? Do you want to be manipulated by the crowd? This crowd or any crowd?

We Can Have Peace

I encourage you to watch the video below. It does have some disturbing content, but it will tell you a great deal about human behaviour. Knowledge is power and the more we know about why we act as we do, the more power we have to control it. We can do more than just give lip service to peace and compassion. We can know ourselves. We can know each other.And we can resist the urge to conform.

Warning! There Are Some Very Disturbing Pictures In This Thoughtful Video

Following The Crowd. This Short Video Is Fun!


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    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      Guest 4 years ago

      Great article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you Shabargirish, This is my fav hub and it makes me hopeful!

    • shabarigirish profile image

      shabarigirish 4 years ago

      Well researched and insightful hub Sheri. Thanks for sharing, I voted it up.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Dannde. This article is close to my heart as I really believe peace is possible! Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • profile image 4 years ago

      What an awesome article. A very sincere thank you for writing this. It is thought provoking, insightful and very educational. Wonder if there is some way we could get it into the classes of grade school kids. Wish that all my grand kids could watch and share it. Makes me glad to have been branded a non conformist.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 4 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      @Kasman...It does not surprise me at all that you would stand up for your beliefs..that comes across loud and clear in your hubs and posts and GOOD for you! media as the new herd mentality...good point and I hadn't thought of that. And you are forgiven for the rah-rahs for you hockey team Canuck fans are still moaning the blues here. Actually, the Hockey riots here after the Canucks lost was one of the reasons I wrote this. Those young men are now on trial and most of them seem to be fine productive people who got caught up. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 4 years ago from Chicago Area

      This is why I ditched Facebook and Pinterest. No, I'm serious. Social media has been one of the recent herd activities that is now getting a lot of non-conformity pushback, including from me who talks about using social media for business. Everything needs to be evaluated before following the herd.

      But I hope you'll forgive us here in Chicago for becoming a cheering herd after our Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup... again. :)

    • Kasman profile image

      Kas 4 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

      Well Sheri, I think you're on to something with this. I agree that it's easy to follow the crowd and we can get caught up in the minutia of it all. But I tell you, I was actually always what I would consider a stand-out. I don't say that in arrogance or of my own accord only. I've been told this again and again that I am a non-conformist in many ways. Sure, I like a good speech or song and will clap with the crowd on these things but if it's something I don't believe in, I'm not joining in to something that's against my beliefs. Great hub, I'm voting up and sharing!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Mrs. I totally agree that all violence is barbaric. An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind. I appreciate your reading and commenting.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Voted up, awesome, interesting, and useful! I greatly admire your courageous, thought-provoking questions and perspective. Any and all violence that we currently take for granted as "normal" (whether towards animals or military targets) may very well be considered barbaric by future generations. The studies about brain responses (pleasure in conformity) were new to me and very interesting!! Excellent article. :-) Lurana

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks midget38. I appreciate your dropping by.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent hub, Sheri!!!Agreed. We have to have the courage not to conform to moral standards and make our own choices. Thanks for sharing!!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks gypsumgirl

    • gypsumgirl profile image

      gypsumgirl 5 years ago from Vail Valley, Colorado

      What an insightful piece! Thank you for sharing!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Nat. I will look forward to reading your hub.

    • profile image

      Natalie 5 years ago from Luton

      Interesting hub, you have inspired me to dig a little deeper and link it to consumer food choices and why we tend to choose junk food over healthy option, there is so much about the mind we do not understand, learning why we act a certain way will definitely help us evolve. Great hub I'll look forward to the next one.x

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks tillsontitan. It was interesting to do the research on this.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      I've known about mob mentality for years but you make a good case for how easy it is to get sucked in. We all like to think we're above this but you've really made some good points proving the opposite. Lots to think about.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you Eddy.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      A great read and thank you for sharing.I vote up and share.


    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Angela. I find too, the older I get, the more true to myself I in what people think about me is none of my business! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      As I've aged I find myself more independent and less interested in "following the crowd" but then I've always been somewhat of an odd ball. I've never followed the crowd politically but I've been guilty of wearing some awful clothes! Great Hub! Best/Sis

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you Pinto. It is true we are all vunerable to this.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      You have dealt with the subject which most of us suffers from quite vociferously and contoured the boundaries in a great fashion. Thumbs Up!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thanks Bill. As we learn through science about why we act the way we do, it gives me hope that brutality can go the way of the dodo.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great topic and great reflections, Sheri. I'm not sure if we see more of this today, or less, but I know the mob mentality can be disturbing at the very least.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you Bravewarrior. I appreciate that.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 5 years ago from Central Florida

      Sheri, I shared this on the H.O.W. Facebook page. Really great hub!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      @Gerhoad64 Yes, I so agree about that video. And they removed the more disturbing pics. I wonder that this didn't get way more media attention! That video was, in part, what inpired this hub. How could those people be so cruel? Thanks for reading.

      @Bravewarrior, Thank you cool chick! I agree we need to be very careful who we follow.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 5 years ago from Central Florida

      Sheri, this hub is so right on, interesting and well-researched. Yes, I said "right on". I happen to be a child of the sixties. :-)

      You bring up so many good points regarding leaders versus followers. If, indeed, our brains are triggered to follow, than we need more positive leaders with positive thoughts and who want to work towards bettering society and our government.

      You certainly have presented some much needed food-for-thought!

      Awesome job! I hope you get a hundred million readers out of this hub!

    • Gcrhoads64 profile image

      Gable Rhoads 5 years ago from North Dakota

      The video was very disturbing. Awesome hub. It will give me something to think about for some time.

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 5 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Thank you Kathryn. It is interesting to learn about oursleves.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 5 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      Sheri, well done! This is incredibly interesting and insightful. I'm going to share this.


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