Friday, January 27, 2012

The Mob Mask

"Kill the pig.  Cut her throat.  Bash her in."  Source

In 2001, a woman contemplated jumping off a bridge.  During these moments, traffic was held up and motorists started yelling for her to jump.  She did.

Horrible, no?  Well what if I told you that, were you there, you might have yelled “Jump!” with them?

During Halloween (in USA anyway), people like to dress up.  They put on costumes and, for one night, shed their identity to become someone else.  But with costumes come an interesting twist.  While wearing the costume, you make yourself more anonymous.  By increasing your anonymity, you lower your inhibitions.

An experiment let children play games while either in costume or not.  Some of the games were competitive and not aggressive, with others were, such as extracting a beanbag from a tube.  During the time they wore costumes, the children played the more aggressive games twice as much as they did when they were unmasked.

Putting on a mask is not the only way to achieve this kind of anonymity.  When people gather in groups, something happens to the individuals.  Deindividuation.  What this means is that people start to lose sense of who they are, and what they stand for.  Your own right and wrong dissolves and is replaced by the group’s right and wrong.  You are essentially putting on the mask of the group, and shedding your identity and replacing it with ‘member of <group>’.

Three factors contribute to this effect.  First, anonymity.  If the entire group is wearing masks or standing in darkness, the effect becomes that much more devastating.  In another experiment, a group of kids with Halloween costumes are told to take only one piece of candy, and then the researcher left them alone.  Sometimes they were asked for their names.  When identified, being in a group increased the likelihood of them breaking the rules a little (from 10 to 20 per cent), while the incognito kids had a big jump in breaking rules when they were in a group (from 20 to 60 per cent).

Second is group size.  The bigger the group, the more anonymous the individual, the greater the effect.  Third is arousal.  Listening to a moving speech, chanting, singing or other ritual-like activities can stir this in you.  Anything that grabs your attention and holds it.  The pressure builds and builds until you lose your sense of self and merge with the group.

Being in a mob is like being possessed by something other than your own mind.  Afterwards, people will be ashamed or even horrified by what they did, as if they didn’t choose it.  (In a sense, they didn’t.)

I don’t know if I would have yelled at that woman to jump.  I certainly hope not.  But mob psychology is a powerful thing.  Terrifying, in fact.

Two books that contain good examples of this phenomenon are Xenocide by Orson Scott Card and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I got most of my information here.


  1. Very interesting post.

  2. Wow, this is interesting. I kept thinking about church and how Sundays sometimes feel like a mob gathering. Not in a bad way, but I feel that if I am not careful, I can lose my identity. I know I've done some crazy things (like body surfing at a concert - yes, I did that...) while in large groups. This explains why, and I think that's why I often try to avoid big groups of people.

    1. In a sense, church is a mob gathering. You have a large group of people, and a leader giving them ques, while they are being emotionally connected via the singing of hymns. (That's probably the reason a lot of those revival things are successful while it's happening but then the people lose interest later - there is usually very moving talks and often ritual-like activities.)

      Also, I can't even imagine anything close to you body surfing at a concert. Ha.

  3. Yeah, it totally happened. Crazy, huh? And, yes, church definitely falls under that description. I've been raised that way, so it isn't odd or anything. It's just fascinating to think about it in that light!

    1. I think a lot of normal things can be classified as a mob (say, sport spectators). And I also think that a lot of those things aren't as intense as real mobs. I mean, I've never felt that I've lost my identity while in church.

  4. Yeah, I haven't either. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite.