| 1.7°C Dublin

The theories behind the phenomenon of 'mob mentality'


Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

As a student in the mid-1970s I hitch-hiked around Germany with a friend one summer. Somewhere, possibly Berlin, we were suddenly caught in a student riot. One minute we were ambling along a nice, quaint street, the next we were surrounded by a screaming mob.

Riot police were there in numbers waving batons and carrying what appeared to be canisters. I was overcome by terror - the fear of being arrested and charged with rioting in a foreign country was too terrible to contemplate.

We got away, somehow, but to this day I shiver when I remember those minutes of helplessness. I now know something of the panic that must have engulfed Joan Burton when she was caught and harangued by a demonstrating mob a few weeks ago.

We are generally not a nation of demonstrators or protestors and when we do we are usually dignified and well-mannered. So what turns a crowd exerting their democratic right to protest into a hollering mob? Since the Romans threw Christians to the lions in the Colosseum to satisfy clamour of the crowd, this question has been asked.

The French Revolution marked a key moment in history when over 40,000 noblemen and women were guillotined by the mob during the Reign of Terror. It wasn't until the late 1880s that academics began to take an interest in crowd psychology. The father of the genre was the anthropologist Gustave le Bon and his work is still important today although some of his theories have been challenged.

Le Bon believed that a crowd of demonstrators was greater than the sum of the individuals in it; thus it had a "consciousness" of its own. He believed that the individuals became submerged in the crowd and lost their sense of individual responsibility under cover of the anonymity it provided. He further postulated that individuals, having become so immersed, followed the dominant idea or emotion of the crowd unquestioningly, through contagion.

He believed that in themselves, crowds were a force for danger and that the ideas they generated were primitive. He identified the tactics the crowd manipulators used to spread ideas. Unsurprisingly Hitler and Mussolini drew heavily on Le Bon's theories but so too did Churchill and Roosevelt.

Other academics dispute the idea of a "madding crowd" infused with emotion. Norris Johnson, the Cincinatti sociologist, investigated a "stampede" that killed 11 people at The Who concert in 1979 and concluded the opposite. He argued that the crowd in this instance was not emotion-filled or stampeding but trying to escape the rush and most were attempting to help the injured. He argued that viewing crowds as aggressive is unhelpful. Henry Allport, an American social psychologist argued that the crowd was simply a group of individuals and that in a crowd they behave no differently than they otherwise would. Thus the crowd is comprised simply of like-minded people whose opinions and actions are intensified by the crowd.

Philip Zombardo, the man who carried out the Stanford Prison experiment, believed that anonymity, group identity and emotional arousal, weaken restraint, self-evaluating behaviours and social conscience and so lend power to the crowd. His prison experiment is famous.

In 1971 he invited 24 students to participate in an experiment where some were to role-play as prisoners and others as prison wardens. To his astonishment, the wardens enforced extremely rigid measures and subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted this and, at the request of the guards, also meted out the same behaviour to other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment was terminated abruptly after six days.

Home & Property

Get the best home, property and gardening stories straight to your inbox every Saturday.

This field is required

So much for the crowd, what of the organisers? How do they influence the crowd dynamic? Crowd theorists propose that in any crowd there are mainly followers but the leaders determine the tone. What has become known as 'Emergent Norm Theory' states that crowds have little unity at the outset, but during a period of mixing, key members suggest actions, and followers conform in the belief that if everybody in the crowd is acting in a particular way it cannot be wrong. This is known as universality.

Group identity is also an important factor in determining the behaviour of the crowd. If the crowd is bound by some common bond (such as Christians or animal rights activists), then the values of that group will determine crowd action, aided by the leader. Thus a positive or negative mob emerges. A leader can influence the crowd to violence or to peaceful protest; soaring rhetoric, emotion, metaphor, extreme examples and repetition are just some of the oratorial techniques used to instil action into the followers.

When we read claims recently that the water charge demonstrators were being manipulated we may have been sceptical. But mob theorists teach us that a crowd is not some passive organism but an active unit with its own dynamic that is willing and capable of being led in a particular direction. The crowd and the leaders interact to become a powerful unit. And therein lies their danger. I was right to be frightened in Germany and Joan Burton had every reason to be frightened in Tallaght.

Most Watched