In the movie Young Frankenstein directed by Mel Brooks, there is a point in the story where the Inspector of the local police rallies the townspeople to gather in a mob so that they can go find and destroy the Monster. He declares "A riot is an ugly thing . . . But I think its just about time we had one!"
Although presented as parody, it is a classic recreation of a type of social and cultural event that predates history.
The dynamics of crowds first became a subject of scrutiny in the 19th Century. In 1841, Charles Mackay authored Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which he described the history of crowd behavior in several different contexts, including financial markets and the pursuit of witches. He relates a number of instances of typical crowd behaviors, including this one:
"In the Annual Register for 1760, an instance of the belief in witchcraft is related, which shows how superstition lingers. A dispute arose in the little village of Glen, in Leicestershire, between two old women, each of whom vehemently accused the other of witchcraft. The quarrel at last ran so high that a challenge ensued, and they both agreed to be tried by the ordeal of swimming. They accordingly stripped to their shifts – procured some men, who tied their thumbs and great toes together, cross-wise, and then, with a cart-rope about their middle, suffered themselves to be thrown into a pool of water. One of them sank immediately, but the other continued struggling a short time upon the surface of the water, which the mob deeming an infallible sign of her guilt, pulled her out, and insisted that she should immediately impeach all her accomplices in the craft. She accordingly told them that, in the neighbouring village of Burton, there were several old women as “much witches as she was.”
Happily for her, this negative information was deemed sufficient, and a student in astrology, or “white-witch,” coming up at the time, the mob, by his direction, proceeded forthwith to Burton in search of all the delinquents. After a little consultation on their arrival, they went to the old woman’s house on whom they had fixed the strongest suspicion. The poor old creature on their approach locked the outer door, and from the window of an upstairs room asked what they wanted. They informed her that she was charged with being guilty of witchcraft, and that they were come to duck her; remonstrating with her at the same time upon the necessity of submission to the ordeal, that, if she were innocent, all the world might know it. Upon her persisting in a positive refusal to come down, they broke open the door and carried her out by force, to a deep gravel-pit full of water. They tied her thumbs and toes together and threw her into the water, where they kept her for several minutes, drawing her out and in two or three times by the rope round her middle. Not being able to satisfy themselves whether she were a witch or no, they at last let her go, or, more properly speaking, they left her on the bank to walk home by herself, if she ever recovered. Next day, they tried the same experiment upon another woman, and afterwards upon a third; but, fortunately, neither of the victims lost her life from this brutality.
Many of the ringleaders in the outrage were apprehended during the week, and tried before the justices at quarter-sessions. Two of them were sentenced to stand in the pillory and to be imprisoned for a month; and as many as twenty more were fined in small sums for the assault, and bound over to keep the peace for a twelvemonth."
What is notable about this narrative is that although the incident starts a merely a quarrel between two individuals, once the crowd is formed, it appears to take on a life of its own. It reconvenes for several days in pursuit of more "witches", wherever it might find them. Further, the participants are willing to commit criminal acts in pursuit of the goals of the crowd.
In 1895, French sociologist Gustave Le Bon wrote what was the seminal work on crowd behavior at the time, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. In that work Le Bon modeled a crowd as a "collective mind" that acted seemingly independently of the individuals that formed it. He posited:
"In its ordinary sense the word "crowd" means a gathering of individuals of whatever nationality, profession, or sex, and whatever be the chances that have
brought them together. From the psychological point of view the expression "crowd" assumes quite a different signification. Under certain given circumstances, and only under those 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. The gathering has thus become what, in the absence of a better expression, I will call an organised crowd, or, if the term is considered preferable, a psychological crowd. It forms a single being, and is subjected to the law of the mental unity of crowds.
It is evident that it is not by the mere fact of a number of individuals finding themselves accidentally side by side that they acquire the character of an organised crowd. A thousand individuals accidentally gathered in a public place without any determined object in no way constitute a crowd from the psychological point of view. To acquire the special characteristics of such a crowd, the influence is necessary of certain predisposing causes of which we shall have to determine the nature."
Le Bon's work was controversial, but was widely followed in the early 20th Century by many prominent individuals, including Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Bernays -- the author of Propaganda and godfather of the modern advertising industry -- and various authoritarian leaders (and I don't mean Lord Voldemort). The focus was shifting from how crowds formed and behaved to how they could be influenced or controlled.
As discussed in this post, in the mid 20th Century, Elias Canetti wrote Crowds and Power, where he theorized that people join crowds "because they provide an antidote, albeit temporary, to the typical human trend of differentiation and take people back to a state where they are equal to each other and without any bound." This idea was picked up in the 21st Century by Jonathan Haidt. "Haidt contends that humans behave as if they were 90% chimpanzee, or individualist thinkers, and 10% bee, or collectivist thinkers -- that is, selfish beings striving to belong to a bigger and nobler entity. "People reach ecstasy when they are able to transition to the feeling of “being part of a whole”. . . . Haidt identifies three ways by which people can reach this state: awe in nature, drugs, and social raves (e.g. sports, musical, religious and political rallies of any sort)."
In our society we like to think of "violent mobs" as largely a thing of the past and a relic of hyper-traditional cultures, such as this mob murder in Kabul:
"The mob grabbed Farkhunda, pulled her hair, hit her, spit at her, pushed her to the ground, stomped on her body, kicked her in the head, and ripped the veil from her face. Police, seeing the urgency of the situation, attempted to remove her from the crowds by climbing atop a shop roof. Farkhunda lost her balance while fighting to stay conscious, and slipped down the rooftop and back into the crowd.
She was brutally and mercilessly beaten into unconsciousness. The crowd then dragged her motionless body into the street and ran her over with a car, dragging her some 300 feet. They then set her corpse on fire and watched her body burn. They used their own clothing articles (e.g. scarves and hats) to keep the fire alight, because her own clothing and body were so bloodied that they would not catch alight."
Yet U.S. history also recounts such mob violence, whether through the tradition of vigilante lynchings, the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the 1968 Riots in Washington, DC and elsewhere, or smaller and more recent incidents involving revolts against policing and even celebrations after sporting events that get out of control.
The focus on crowds and the potential for violence has most recently resurfaced in the rallies surrounding the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, with charges that he has been inciting crowds to violence and counter-charges that violent crowds are disrupting Trump's rallies. This man was charged with assault in connection with one incident:
What is particularly interesting about what he says is that he adopts the persona of the crowd -- instead of talking about his own actions and what he might do in the future, he couches his speech in terms of "we" as if he is channeling the "collective mind" that Le Bon posited.
Yet the mechanisms of crowds and the relationships between crowds and their leaders remains somewhat obscure, as discussed in this recent article from FiveThirtyEight, which canvasses psychologists about the relationships between a crowd and its leader(s). The current theory is that of an "emotional contagion" that flows back and forth between the crowd and its leader:
"[A]ll the scientists I spoke to assumed emotional contagion flows both ways — top down and bottom up. “It makes total sense,” Barsade told me. “If you’re a speaker in front of a roaring crowd, the emotion you’re going to feel back from that crowd is incredibly powerful. It’s largely automatic. You’d have to consciously regulate yourself to have it not happen.”
They all described the experience of a politician speaking to a crowd as a symbiotic feedback loop: The politician sets an emotional tone that is picked up by the crowd, which expresses its own emotional state that the politician responds to. On both sides, the emotional mimicry has an influence on behavioral choices. When Trump knows that he’s losing his audience and that talking about the wall will bring them back, the interaction could be seen as an expression of emotional contagion in action."
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But what do we see when we look at crowd psychology through the Lenses of Wisdom? Some interesting things for sure.
Since we just ended with a quote about "emotional mimicry", a look through the Mimetic Lens should probably be our first stop. The mimicry described above is an example of positive mimesis, which creates unity of purpose or desire:
"[W]henever a person’s desire is imitated by someone else, she becomes a ‘mediator’ or ‘model’. Girard points out that this is very evident in publicity and marketing techniques: whenever a product is promoted, some celebrity is used to ‘mediate’ consumers’ desires: in a sense, the celebrity is inviting people to imitate him in his desire of the product. The product is not promoted on the basis of its inherent qualities, but simply because of the fact that some celebrity desires it."
In the case of Trump, the desire to eliminate the protestors is one shared between him and his crowd. And while Trump clearly feeds off the crowd, he is ultimately in charge. His Republican political rivals have made a point of defusing such situations to differentiate themselves from him.
But beyond this simple mimesis, we can see the broader archaic sacred mechanism of scapegoating on display in its full theatrical flowering. First, protestors or other outsiders are identified as scapegoats who are deemed unwelcome. Second, they are verbally and sometimes physically abused. Third, comes the culmination with the elimination or expunging of the offender.
To the outside observer, the whole spectacle seems ridiculous -- like a Hollywood re-enactment of a Roman or Aztec ritual or the pitchfork mob that is the staple of many a classic horror movie, as illustrated at the top. Yet to the participants, the experience is deeply and emotionally meaningful, as the video of the Trump protestor above shows. In fact, this is what makes these rallies so popular. As Jonathan Haidt noted, participation in such an event allows an individual to experience a form of ecstasy of becoming part of a greater whole.
The pattern of crowd formation, selection of a scapegoat and expunging is so ingrained that it is a staple of plots of novels and films. In Westernized plots, the Christian ideal is followed -- the scapegoats are innocent and are often the protagonists of the story. Note that this is not the viewpoint from the crowd itself, which follows the archaic sacred ideal of expunging or eliminating the scapegoats to restore peace and order to the community.
There are many variations on this crowd forming and scapegoating theme. Here we see a variation from the cult classic movie The Warriors where a leader is murdered and the scapegoats are selected -- with the remainder of the movie having the crowd chase the scapegoats across the city of New York (in a stylized and cartoonish way).
Taking a more wide-angle view of the Trump situation, the Mimetic Lens shows us that the violence of these rallies can induce mimetic violence in opposition to these rallies. This is what we observed in Chicago:
Looking through the lens at an even wider angle, Mimetic theory states that for societies to maintain order, eventually these outbursts are quelled through the official violence of police action. And so we are familiar in the United States with the concept of "calling out the National Guard" to restore order.
In anarchic societies that lack strong or stable governments, the cycle and escalation of violence among competing crowds or factions can continue for years. This type of situation existed in France in the 1790s, the Balkan countries in the 1990s, and in Syria and parts of Africa today.
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Looking through the Prospecting Lens next, we see that crowd psychology is almost entirely in the province of System 1 for the individual. The rationality of System 2 is almost entirely suspended, allowing the individual to participate in actions he or she would probably not take part in outside the relative anonymity of the crowd. The most relevant System 1 heuristics are those that accompany "group thinking" and reinforcement of pre-determined narratives, including:
THE HALO EFFECT. “This is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed." The warm emotion we feel toward a person, place, or thing predisposes us to like everything about that person, place, or thing. The first to speak their opinion in a meeting can “prime” others’ opinions.
This describes the relationship between the crowd and the leader. The effect is so pronounced in crowd psychology that it often does not really matter what the leader is saying, other that instilling group collectiveness and identifying enemies and scapegoats.
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. Often those explanations involve 1) assuming intention, “It was meant to happen,” 2) causality, “They’re homeless because they’re lazy,” or 3) interpreting providence, “There’s a divine purpose in everything.”“Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities,” Potential for error? We posit intention and agency where none exists, we confuse causality with correlation, and we make more out of coincidences than is statistically warranted.
This heuristic allows the crowd to impute guilt upon the chosen scapegoats. In the mob narrative they are not victims, but "witches" or other outsiders, people who are not like us (not American in the video above) or other evil doers that must be excised from the body of the community to restore harmony to the group.
SUBSTITUTION. When confronted with a perplexing problem, question, or decision, we make life easier for ourselves by answering a substitute, simpler question. Instead of grappling with the mind-bending philosophical question, “What is happiness?” we answer the easier question, “What is my mood right now?”
The heuristic also contributes to collectivization of a crowd. The leader presents simple answers to complex problems. "Build a wall" is the one that comes to mind in the Trump campaign and he frequently repeats the same phrases over and over again at his rallies. It becomes irrelevant the proposed action is unlikely to solve the actual economic security/job prospects problems faced by the adherents.
CONFIDENCE OVER DOUBT. System 1 suppresses ambiguity and doubt by constructing coherent stories from mere scraps of data. System 2 is our inner skeptic, weighing those stories, doubting them, and suspending judgment. But because disbelief requires lots of work System 2 sometimes fails to do its job and allows us to slide into certainty. We have a bias toward believing. Because our brains are pattern recognition devices we tend to attribute causality where none exists.
-- and --
THE ILLUSION OF VALIDITY. We sometimes confidently believe our opinions, predictions, and points of view are valid when confidence is unwarranted. Some even cling with confidence to ideas in the face of counter evidence. “Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it." Factors that contribute to overconfidence include being dazzled by one’s own brilliance and affiliating with like-minded peers.
These heuristics also contribute to crowd psychology by allowing individuals to subsume any doubts about what they are saying or doing to the confident will of the group. Both are forms of "social proof", that permit participation in unseemly behavior because "everyone else is doing it."
The power of these seemingly simple cognitive biases in a crowd situation should not be underestimated. It is the anonymity of the collective mind and ecstasy of taking part that makes crowd violence, atrocities and even murder possible. No society is immune from this aspect of human psychology.
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Finally, looking through the Fractal Lens, we can gain some insight into when crowd psychologies may be more likely to manifest themselves.
Recall that the view of history and human events through the Fractal Lens is based on the sand or rice pile model. Structures pile up bit by bit until eventually they become unstable. Then a grain of sand or rice comes along that is just "one too many", precipitating a great collapse.
Historically, it is during these collapses that crowd psychology can often return to rear its ugly head. The French revolution was perhaps the modern archetype for this phenomenon, because it was one of the first that was not tied to organized religion. Instead it relied on Rousseau's philosophy of the purity of the natural man. Unfortunately, as we know from the Mimetic Lens, natural man is not that pure of heart. The result was successive waves of crowd violence and reigns of terror that could eventually only be halted by the rise of an authoritarian leader.
This cycle was repeated in the early 20th century collapses of the European empires and the modern collapses in the Balkans, Lebanon, various African nations and currently in Syria.
But this also occurs on a smaller scale within U.S. political parties. In the 1960s, having reached an apex in control of all aspects of government, the Democratic party seemingly suddenly collapsed over an unpopular war and race relations and legislation. A sitting President admitted failure and decided not to run for a second term. Important and charismatic leaders were sacrificed to assassins and violent crowds of ordinarily reliable Democratic supporters took to the streets. But although the collapse seemed sudden, many of these issues had been simmering for some time. The war and the assassinations were the grains of sand or rice that triggered the collapse, but they were not responsible for the build up of the tensions over the prior years.
The same situation appears to be true now for the Republican side. Once reliable Republican supporters are no longer content with the traditional leadership. Thus, the narrative of non-traditional candidates eventually succumbing after early successes in Iowa or New Hampshire has broken down. Trump is, in effect, the grain of sand or rice that triggers the avalanche on the pile. But the precursors -- the smaller landslides -- were already there. The resignation of John Boehner and the defeat of Eric Cantor were mere harbingers of what is unfolding in this election cycle.
That angry crowds or mobs would assemble in this environment should not really be a surprise, at least in a view through the Fractal Lens. Like earthquakes and stock market crashes, collapses and reformations of institutions are inevitable. It is only our propensity to project the calm, linear System 1 narrative of the immediate past into the future that catches us off guard.
And, just as earthquakes come in waves with aftershocks, a Fractalist view anticipates that there will be some more of the same before it gets better.
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Finally, I'd be remiss on Easter Week (Roman calendar) if I didn't come back to perhaps the most famous "crowd scene" of two mimetic rivals riling up a crowd to converge on a scapegoat:
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.