I have always been nervous of mass demonstrations, or crowds which seem to have a mind of their own. I fear their irrationality. As Mark Antony said to the Roman mob: “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.”
Psychologists and sociologists have spent much time studying crowd behaviour, and it seems that both Mark Antony and I have underestimated the factors at work. An excellent overview of research was provided by Drury and Stott in 2011.
At one time it was thought that, under the influence of the crowd, individual personality was lost, and its members, who might otherwise be quite normal, became barbarian creatures of instinct. The Tottenham riots, following the shooting of Mark Duggan in August 2011, might well have been the subject of one 19th-century expert’s view: “Crowds, after a period of excitement, enter upon a purely automatic and unconscious state, in which they are guided by suggestion.”
But the modern view describes crowd behaviour in terms of what we know about group dynamics. Seen in that way, it appears altogether more rational. If that understanding is correct then we have a better chance of both controlling crowds and correcting the original causes.
The collective behaviour of a crowd requires that its members become aware of themselves as a group with common aims. In the Tottenham riots we may suppose that the group shared a general suspicion and dislike of the police. The Mark Duggan shooting was the occasion of the crowd coming together. But then the phenomenon of collective group norms began to influence the situation. It is argued that the brain is wired to respond to the norms of the group with which we identify. Indeed, we may find our automatic error-monitoring activity warns us of the inadvisability of being too different from others. In such a situation the personal identity of the individual tends to be replaced by his social identity as a member of a group, and behaviour follows suit.
In the Tottenham example, the mood of the crowd developed and changed, following on the responses of the police. But this is quite rational. We are frequently in situations, including benign and positive ones – such as Christmas shopping crowds – in which our inclinations are reinforced and magnified by our acceptance of the social identity shared with those who surround us and who share similar concerns.
But this central dynamic is often obscured. There may be individuals who are troublemakers, and so raise the temperature. And there are opportunists who use the cover of rational grievance to seize personal benefit. This can lead to an assumption that the whole crowd can be written off as hysterical ne’er-do-wells. Such a verdict prevents us from looking at the deeper, and perhaps avoidable, causes of resentment. Our better understanding of the dynamic of the crowd enables civil authority to respond in constructive ways, rather than aggravating the crowd’s collective resentment through harsh attempts to control what it erroneously takes to be a criminal mob.
The same phenomena may be seen in the distasteful subject of gang rape. While we have seen this recently in India, and know of its occurrence in the gang culture of this country, we are aware that it has been with us throughout history. An interesting analysis by the psychologist David Lisak throws light on this.
Although the occasion for gang rape is sexual, it is fundamentally a crime of male aggression – an expression of anger and hate. Lisak says: “At the top of the list is power, a feeling of being able to dominate and control another human being, to force them to do something against their will that you want.” Sexual success is a way in which men can define themselves, and if their masculinity is threatened a need to prove their sexual success may be the shared value which reinforces the collective aggression of the gang.
It may seem strange to us that women can be seen as objects of fear and hatred and, in some sense, the property of the male. But in fact such attitudes are to be seen throughout history in different cultures, including our own. We may understand it more readily in societies where women are seen as fundamentally inferior, but I suspect that it can lurk deep in the male psyche anywhere. We should expect to find it more prevalent in countries such as India, where gender selection produces substantially more males than females. Not only is this an indication of gynophobia but it gives rise to an excessive male population who cannot find partners. It is more likely to increase than to decrease in the future.
It may seem contrary to describe gang rape as rational, yet it must be seen as an expression of deep attitudes which exist both in the individual and societal culture. While we must hold offenders responsible, societies must look more deeply at the conditions in which such atrocities become more likely to happen. Lisak concludes: “It is obvious that women around the world are viewed as vulnerable and as legitimate targets for hatred and the exercise of power. A culture has to examine why that is and how it came to be and how it can be changed.”
Mark Antony knew this all the time. He brilliantly changed a group united in their fear of a dictator into a group united in their passion for a benefactor. He was a psychologist, too.
My thanks to Dr John Drury of Sussex University for mentoring this. Remaining mistakes are mine. If anyone wishes to research this question more deeply, please use “Contact Us”, above, and I will send you references.