Mob Mentality: When The Group Takes Over The Individual
A Muslim man suspected of theft, is allegedly beaten to death by a mob after being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram. Seven people in Jharkhand are lynched based on a WhatsApp forward that claimed they’d been child lifters. 16-year-old Junaid Khan is attacked and murdered on a local train on the suspicion that he had been carrying beef.
One rumor, one WhatsApp forward is all it takes for a group of people to take someone’s life — without any effort to verify the allegation first.
FIT got in touch with Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Consultant Psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, and Havovi Hyderabadwalla, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist and Co-founder of ‘Mind Mandala’, to understand what drives the people in these groups to carry out such impulsive, barbaric and disruptive acts.
Mob Mentality and Deindividuation
While vigilantism is an extreme, such group-influenced behavior is at play in the very simplest of situations. Watching the latest Netflix series because everyone has been discussing it, investing in a particular stock because everyone has been investing in it, buying ripped jeans because everyone’s been wearing them — these are all facets of the same behavior.
In such cases, the individuals may end up doing things that they may not have done otherwise.
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta explains that people in these mobs are not always thinking rationally.
Hyderabadwalla adds, “It is more of an emotional attachment that is created between a group and individual.”
According to an article in South Source (a publication of South University), “When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity.”
We Follow, It’s Proven!
Scientists at the University of Leeds found that humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals.
The research findings show that as the number of people in a crowd increases, the number of informed individuals decreases.
In another study, researchers focused on the way that our natural desire to be part of the 'in crowd' could damage our independent decision-making ability.
"Research led by the University of Exeter has shown that individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbours, rather than rely on their own instinct. As a result, groups have become less responsive to changes in their natural environment."
A report in Science Daily quotes the lead author of the study Dr Colin Torney from the University of Exeter, who said that social influence is a powerful force in nature and society.
An entire branch of social psychology focuses on crowd behavior and how it differs from the individuals that comprise it. French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon, one of the pioneers in the field of ‘crowd psychology’, explored the subject in his book ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’.
An article in Independent.ie breaks down some of the points he makes.
“He believed that the individuals became submerged in the crowd and lost their sense of individual responsibility, having become so immersed, followed the dominant idea or emotion of the crowd unquestioningly, through contagion.”
Why Do We Conform?
Psychology Today defines conformity as “the tendency to align our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those around us.”
According to Ms Mehta, the ease with which one can evade responsibility as part of a group can explain such an inclination.
Moreover, we develop this as a schema to make quicker decisions. It has been fed into us since our childhood. We have been trained, molded and instructed since the very beginning. In Mehta’s words, “When your parents told you something, you believed them because they must have been right.”
The tendency may also get triggered by a tiny belief, doubt or suspicion in a person’s mind about something. Instead of thinking, analyzing or investigating the matter, he/she just follows others — again, because it’s easier.
As a result, when many like-minded people get together, they reinforce each other’s ideologies and beliefs, and the end result is a more condensed, stronger, and fixed mindset about things.
Another major reason why individuals have a tendency to align themselves with a certain group is to have a ‘sense of belonging’, Hyderabadwalla explains.
Mehta adds, “In fact, some researches have found that a part of the brain that deals with decision making is a bit dormant at the time.”
In many cases, people simply tend to replicate what they see.
Is It Possible to Not ‘Follow the Herd’?
Following others blindly or just ‘going with the flow’ may be beneficial, such as during emergency evacuations and as witnessed in historic revolutions. However, in several other occasions like mob vigilantism or terrorism, it can rob people of their identities and turn them into mere puppets.
While humans may be naturally inclined to conform (as various studies have proven time and again), it is possible to maintain or stand by one’s own beliefs and ethics — even in difficult situations.
Mehta offers various steps that can be taken to achieve self-awareness. In her words,
- Ask yourself questions: Why do I do this? If i had a choice, would I do it differently?
- Keep a journal. Note down your response, action and mood. This way, if you observe a recurring attitude or thought, you may consider it a part of your personality.
- You may ask a friend or relative: How do I come across to you?
- If this isn’t enough, make a video of yourself talking and analyze it. Make observations about your personality. Know where you react, what you feel, what you stand for and what your opinions are on various topics.
- Most importantly, be aware of what is happening around you. Do not be on an ‘autopilot’ mode. Don’t just do something because someone else is. You may have been programmed to do so since your childhood, but stop, and ask yourself, “Do I want to do this?”
- Havovi, too, reiterates the need to question and debate. She says, “Do not be afraid to say that you don’t like something.”