From Class to Mob: How a Group of Students Develops the Pack Mentality
What is the process through which a group of people, a group in a classroom setting in particular, takes on a life of its own? How does a collection of students develop traits, indeed a personality, unique to itself? In his work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1842-1931) states:
Under Certain given circumstances...an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics...It forms a single mind.
Throughout my academic career, from elementary school, on through high school and finally as a student and class facilitator in college, I witnessed the gestation of the 'pack mentality' in a classroom. This first hand experience has given me the understanding that, while there are many contributing factors to the tendency of a class to act collectively, by far the most significant contributor to its metamorphosis is the 'leader of the pack'.
At a certain stage in my adolescence, I learned that if I led, people would follow. Perhaps because I was more daring than the average student, most of my schoolmates seemed willing to take their cue from me. If I took instruction seriously and listened attentively, so would my peers. If I acted up and disrupted the proceedings, the entire class would mutiny. Even the students that did not actively participate in the mutiny would do nothing to oppose the rebellion. I remember an instance in which the insubordination of my classmates and I reached such an extreme that our teacher left the room in tears.
In The Crowd, Le Bon affirms that "As soon as a certain number of living beings are gathered together, whether they be animals or men, they place themselves instinctively under the authority of a chief." Le Bon points out that the "single mind" formed by a crowd and "under the authority of a chief" is capable of only the crudest thought process; it is stupid, hence my class' behavior.
The question arises: what prompted me to behave or misbehave? Simply this: I took my cue from my instructor. When teachers took command of their classroom and made it clear they were in charge, I rarely contested their authority. If, on the other hand, I sensed apprehension, I pounced. In other words, it was the instructor who set the tone for the conduct and, to a lesser extent, the character and personality of the class. It was the teacher who should, by default if nothing else, have been 'chief'.
As a TA in college conducting labs, I noticed that the rank of chief tends to be awarded on the basis of a person's social standing. As Le Bon puts it, “Whatever has been a ruling power in the world, whether it be ideas or men, has in the main enforced its authority by means of that irresistible force expressed by the word ‘prestige’."
Now, prestige is a curious thing; it may be afforded through odd and disparate means.
I have seen students indulged by their peers and given special considerations for no apparent reason, other than the fact that they dress in the latest fashion. Le Bon would classify this as 'acquired prestige'. Acquired prestige refers to the status afforded certain individuals because of their name, fortune, reputation, etc., and it is relatively easy to observe and understand. We have all witnessed the special treatment given to the 'prom queen' and 'school jock.'
Le Bon's other classification of prestige is 'personal prestige,' and it is much more difficult to explain. Personal prestige, as Le Bon puts it
is a faculty independent of all titles, of all authority, and possessed by a small number of persons whom it enables to exercise a veritably magnetic fascination on those around them, although they are socially their equals, and lack all ordinary means of domination. They force the acceptance of their ideas and sentiments on those about them, and they are obeyed as is the tamer of wild beasts by the animal that could easily devour him.
Le Bon is referring to charisma, that indefinable quality that individuals such as Adolph Hitler and John F. Kennedy displayed. While few instructors may be gifted with this elusive attribute, they have the benefit of their position.
As I conducted labs in college, I encountered students with some charisma and students with acquired prestige. In a classroom setting, however, it is the educator who must assume the leadership role. The teacher has the acquired prestige that comes with maturity, mastery of the subject and the authority of the position. There is never a good reason for a pupil’s standing to overshadow the teacher’s.
I had recently been hired as tutor by the Writing Center of the college I attended, when I was unexpectedly thrust into the position of TA for several English 100 labs. I was unprepared for the broad range of collective attitudes each lab group expressed. Some of these groups were inquisitive and obviously receptive, a couple of them manifested disdain and resentment, and still others seemed determined to enjoy the moment at any cost.
As we came to know each other, the disposition of our groups gradually evolved, each according to the dynamics peculiar to the group. For the most part, I found that the students were looking for guidance and gladly accepted me as the leader of their pack.
While it was the positive attitude that I brought to our meetings and injected into the pursuit of our common goal that was the most significant factor in determining the collective personality we developed, it is by no means the only element worth mentioning.
Among the students themselves, there tended to a be a spearhead to which the rest of the class would look to for direction, acceptance and approval. In one lab in particular, there was a clique that subtly vied with me for control. Because they were young and I felt it would work towards the group’s advantage to grant them a certain amount of spontaneous fun, it may be that I allowed them more leeway than I should have. Their ongoing determination to expand their parameters and the accompanying subtle tension that came with my resistance became a part of this group’s personality.
So it went with all the labs. Each in its own fashion, my lab groups developed their own set of traits.
How we interacted with each other and approached our common goal was manifested uniquely by each of the groups. As people, each member made a conscious effort to relate to each other and share the moment. Each student contributed in his and her own way to the persona of each group, but in the end, it was the leader of the pack that had the greatest influence on our collective behavior.