40 years of mob psychology

Photo: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

One day, about 40 years ago, I found myself in a group of people doing something that scared the crap out of me. As I look around me now, I feel the same way I felt then.

I went to college at Penn State, a burgeoning mass of 30,000 students sequestered in the heart of the mountains and, as we used to say, equally inaccessible to all parts of the state. The student body was diverse because it drew people from both urban and rural parts of Pennsylvania, eastern and midwestern, and students from around the country and around the world. But it was also uniform in that the population of the campus and the small adjacent town of State College were students, professors, dining hall workers, and a bunch of random pizza joints and bookstores. The median age was of the people in a 3-mile radius was probably 20. In the winter, it was snowy and freeze-the-inside-of-your-nostrils cold.

One winter night, about 9:00, there was a commotion in the hall of my dorm. (I was in one of the few co-ed dorms, but all the guys were on one wing, and all the girls on the other.) I poked my head out and heard guys talking about heading over to West Halls and having a snowball fight. In the way of college enthusiasms, a scrum of about 100 guys rapidly coalesced and started heading west. We picked up groups from other parts of campus on the way; word had spread through some sort of magic telegraphy. There were several hundred of us by the time we got there.

When we reached the courtyard of West Halls, we started bellowing. The dorm opposite us was a brick building a few stories tall, and filled with women. Yellow light streamed out of the bathroom and hallway windows into the courtyard. Women began to appear at the windows, and a few of the guys started lazily throwing snowballs at each other. We had an audience.

Someone decided it would be fun to throw snowballs at the dorm. In a matter of seconds, dozens of snowballs were flying at the brick walls. My arm wasn’t nearly good enough to even hit the building, but there were a lot bigger and stronger guys there who were doing a pretty good job hitting the walls a couple of floors up.

Somebody’s snowball hit a window. And then somebody’s snowball broke a window. The scrum had now become a mob, and the sound of breaking glass seemed to inflame it. As the hail of snowballs headed towards the women in the windows, I began to feel very sick. Who were these people? What were they doing? Was I a part of this?

I was too young and scared to say anything. Looking back, the idea of my nerdy little self taking on a few hundred other guys seems impossible. I sort of slunk away, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to be part of that mob.

I’m 58 now, and most of those guys are about the same age as me. Now they’re state legislators, CEOs, parents of their own college students, citizens. Do they remember that night with shame, or fondly? Are they the same people now that they were on that night?

What mobs do we belong to now?

The mobs of 2017

We call the mobs of 2017 the Women’s March, the Alt-Right, coworkers, Red Sox fans, the Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, Americans.

We still gather in bunches and shout, but we gather even more online. We get our blood up. We don’t throw snowballs, we throw words . . . mostly. We egg each other on; we demonize the other side.

The glass is starting to break, and it worries me.

The moment that shocked me into awareness as a Penn State student was the moment when I realized there were people on the other side of those windows, and they were probably going to get hurt. I have been unreasonably suspicious of groups ever since. It’s efficient to make yourself part of a group and push for group action, because it allows you to delegate your thinking and morality to others. That always worries me.

Mobs hurt people because they don’t think of the others as people. Are Muslims people? Are homosexuals? Jews? Patriots fans? Russians? People on welfare? Trump voters? Once you lose your empathy for others as people — or even believe that the people in your group deserve more than those people, you can justify almost anything.

Have you heard the glass shatter? Is someone in your mob throwing insults, snowballs, or rocks? Is it you? Are you going to say anything, or are you going to slink away as I did 40 years ago?

Think a second. Who are you hurting? Is that ok?

Mobs exist. The conditions that make them exist — greed, fear, ignorance, lack of empathy, and the online tools that bind us together in groups — are only getting stronger.

Wake up. Think. Resist.

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  1. Great post that sums up my position on partisan politics. I am an independent and I am chilled by what I see unfolding in American politics. Trump may be bad, but the reaction to him is no better. Truth is the biggest loser in the fight for power.

  2. Another great post Josh. I’ve been thinking along these lines since the election (albeit not as succinctly as you’ve articulated it here). Unfortunately, I think we all know it’s going to get worse before it gets any better. The psychology of the mob is a powerful drug. And while the media (of both biases) fans the flames of escalation, I fear that something really terrible is likely to happen before people wake up and smell what they’ve been shoveling.

  3. Thank you. You explain the madness of mob moments without getting bogged down in whatever “issues” are at play.

    Maybe we never had a true tradition of high-minded discussion, but the essence of mob action is emotion, which is discussion’s antithesis. We are seeing too much emotion — more heat than light — at the moment.

    1. Yes — emotions. Perhaps the chief emotion being the fear of standing out, of separating myself from the group. I can certainly relate to Josh’s “nerdy little self.”

      Great post, Josh. Thanks.

  4. Josh,
    I also went to Penn State, but as a graduate student with a wife and 3 kids in tow. And it was in the late 60’s, early 70’s although I had been a civil rights activist in the late 60’s elsewhere. Your points are well-made, well-taken and my question is what is it going to take to get some attention for significant and positive change without breaking so many windows or is that inevitable? Seems like there may have to be a “revolution” of some kind or else it’s more SOS, same old stuff and it’s not working. It’s just getting worse. Maybe it’s all about intentions and whether you intend to destroy or build up.

  5. Your definition of “mob” is way too broad. You seem to define it as any large gathering of people. Yet, creating social change requires bringing people together around a cause, e.g., civil rights, women’s right to vote, the anti-war protest movement, etc. Otherwise, we’d all sit on our hands in the face of injustice. I think Gary is on the right track in looking at the intent to build up or destroy.

    1. Yes, I think conflating the Women’s March, for example, with a ‘mob’ is unfair and sloppy. I was there. It was the opposite of a mob. It was civil, respectful and tolerant.

      Yes, we need to beware of mob mentality, in this age of partisanship most of all, but a mob is not synonymous with a group, a crowd or even agitation. I think you need to rethink your intemperate slander. Group action, whether as part of political parties like tad Democrats and Republican, or outside of it in street protests, marches or organized letter-writing campaigns are the essence of our democracy. They are, in fact, the defense against mobs.

      When these stop working, we will get our mobs.

      1. I agree Seth, I was at the Women’s March and the vibe was all good. No fighting, no name calling. My purpose was to stand up and be counted and the only way I felt I could do that was to march. I do agree Josh that the online mobs of today are just that–name calling, spit wad throwing groups of people who complain, call people names and seem to think it’s okay to do that. It’s not. That’s why I chose to march in the women’s march. And that’s why I joined a closed group on Facebook that’s dedicated to action on political topics (i.e. calling your congressperson on the health care act). Let’s see if we can’t turn that energy into constructive action instead of bloody name-calling…my two cents!

  6. What I see online is often worse than what happens in protest mobs. Social media posts often get personal very quickly and the damage takes a lot longer to heal than a physical attack. This last election has damaged more friendships and relationships than just about anything else I can remember and the hatred has become toxic. Unfortunately our politicians and what is happening in Congress are a reflection of what the electorate does in social media.

  7. I practice civil discourse daily online, whenever the opportunity arises. I don’t generally get into comment wars with strangers in response to a general news article. It’s never worth it. But often, friends will post something that stirs vitriol among commenters, and I take a different route. Yesterday, a friend posted something that inspired a lengthy discussion about gun violence. She lives in Florida and has friends of all stripes, many of whom are teachers. By showing empathy, I felt I was able to have a fruitful discussion with someone whose views I don’t completely share. It gives me hope. If anyone is interested in exploring more about emotions, Paul Ekman, PhD has a wonderful site called AtlasOfEmotions.org that shows graphically how context, physical sensations, awareness, and choice of response affect behavior. It also graphs the speeds of responses — the difference between, say, a passive aggressive response from a violent outburst and everything in between.