Mob Mentality: The Science Behind Why It Happens
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.
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.