Mob Psychology

When Gujarat burned in 2002, the atrocities committed made even the hardest of the heart shudder. “So inhuman!” seemed to be the universal response of all those who had any conscience left in them! Gujarat is a mere example. There are numerous instances where the ordinary people with ordinary lives become “mobs” and commit unthinkable crimes. This raises an obvious question, what turns these people into such monsters? Just before the “mob” started, these very people were walking around, leading perfectly ‘normal’ lives, dealing with others on a human basis! And then, something changes! Something changes rather drastically, I’d say. It may probably be an exercise worthwhile to try to “understand” what converts a normal human being to a part of a violent and destructive “mob”.

After considerable amount of thinking, reading, discussing and “hearing” the experts speak on this topic, I think there are 5 points that made a lot of sense to me, the five things that can convert a bunch of people to blood thirsty monsters…….

1. Sense of power and privileges: When a group is formed, particularly with a patronage from someone or something authoritative, the sense of “power” of the authoritative person/organization is felt by the group too. If there is a good degree of authority, the group even gets some privileges. It’s the “sense of power and privileges” that often can push people over the edge. For example, if a political leader or party  initiates a violent protest and the party has authority, the “mob” (that often consists of people who have nothing to do with the “actual” outcome of the event) feels powerful and privileged. It knows that if something went wrong, there is someone covering up for them, higher up. And sense of power can make people go seriously wrong! History has enough evidences of the same and I needn’t elaborate over this.

2. Someone else’s responsibility: When someone “authoritative” is taking care of what the mob has to do, the individuals that make the mob can answer their inner voice with “Someone else is responsible for this”. We all have a tendency to find someone or something else to blame. And when there is something wrong happening, it’s much easier to say, “It’s so and so who is responsible, not me”. So, the power-holder becomes responsible and mob walks off with a clear conscience! It’s a mutually convenient setup. The mob blames the authority and the authority either blames the mob back or uses power to clean its tracks! Both parties satisfied and the sufferer is the Society!

3. Compromised morality: As soon as the individuals start passing on the responsibility of violence to the authority, there starts a vicious circle of compromised morality being handed back to it in return. Once the group’s surrendered its responsibility, it gets the authority’s morality as a “payback”. In such an event, it’s only natural that the “morality” of the individuals sits back and watches the “authority’s morality” take over. So, a mob is a mere means to propagate the morality that belongs to someone else, a morality that probably belongs to a selfish individual, higher up in the heirarchy and power.

4. Anonymity: Another aspect of being able to shake off your responsibilites is anonymity a group offers. When there is a group committing a crime, it’s easier for a person to turn violent. “There is refuge in numbers” aren’t wasted words. “I’m not the only one doing this, there are others” is an excuse very conveniently thrown forward by escapists. Anonymity can be an important factor in mob psychology, much more than most of us realize. When there isn’t a “face” associated with the crime, the criminals are far more comfortable committing it.

5. Do or die: Once you are a part of a group and avail the privileges offered by the same, it’s hard to break off. This is of particular significance when the group is capable of harming the individual (or the family) physically, financially or mentally or all of them. It may so happen that the group starts off with a good cause but down the road, gets sidetracked and indulges in anti-social activities (for a host of reasons). The transition needn’t be a swift one and is more dangerous when it’s slow. The individuals don’t realize the “gradual” shift of focus and by the time they do, it’s too late to leave. Our Bollywood movies often parrot this philosophy when a person wants to leave a gangster’s organization, “Is dhandhe mein aana mumkin hai, magar baahar jaana? Namumkin”.

Though an analysis of mob psychology makes us feel that we “have it in us”, I feel that we ALSO “have it in us” to not become a mob and remain the ‘normal’ individuals most of us are. It’s the strength that is needed in that deciding moment, when one takes a SMALL step towards turning to a mob. Subsequent steps merely get you closer to becoming a “mob”! So, the key probably lies in not allowing yourself to “start” in the direction…….I hope the “mobs in making” are reading this…….do not become a faceless, nameless murderer or torturer just because someone is covering up for you……..that someone probably doesn’t care a penny for what happens to you and what you become…….if they did, there’d be no mobs and we’ll be a happier India.

I want to thank Philip Zimbardo’s talk on TED.com for getting me started with writing this and Ananth for the discussions that helped me finalize the draft……

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4 Comments

  1. Ram said,

    September 28, 2008 at 1:09 am

    blog with bibliography, one of a kind! 😛

  2. laasya said,

    September 28, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I agree with all the chief points- well made out 🙂 Particularly the anonymity and shifted responsiblity. The second world war mass killings of Jews is another example..all the gunners were blindfolded, so that each could tell himself he wasn’t the one responsible for the bodies..I would think, at the end of the day, that very few people CAN cold-bloodedly accept responsibility for killing another human being..thank God for that harness, at least!!

  3. pushpa said,

    October 2, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    One more point is PANIC. The ‘mob’ behaviour is triggered off by the Panic button. The perpetrators or the leaders of the mob press the button by declaring that which they want the mob to do. Like ” ******** are killing ########. So all the ######### get back at them or all of you will be dead. Self protection, self preservation or self defence whatever you call it, from the known cause or hearsay, in this case, seems to justify in the mob’s mind the need for the carnage they create.
    Being detached from the crowd and viewing the whole scenerio in a spectator’s perspective would probably help us not to become a part of the mob in making.
    Another point is that most of the people who become a part of the mob are the ones who have had frustrating experiences in their daily struggle to live. They seek a vent for their frustrations and a justifialble reason for it, which the “leaders” readily provide knowing, very well the vulnerability of the populace. Thus the mob is created and the heidious crime is the result.

  4. vikram said,

    November 6, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    A mob need not form at the instance of any leader, sometimes it’s momentous and people are willing to take all the blame and punishment.


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