The graphic videos of men getting lynched on the basis of mere suspicion and racial hatred have deeply impacted the nation’s psyche, so much so that thousands gathered on the streets saying ‘Not in my name’ protesting against such degradation of human values.
Still, the men with the sticks and sickles haunt us, urging us to think what prompts a person to take part in such a violent act. What a person might not do as an individual, he or she might do it as part of a group. The presence of a large number of people emboldens us, and their support helps us to get rid of all our usual inhibitions.
In his 1896 book, ‘The Crowd – A Study of the Popular Mind’, Gustave Le Bon said that the most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is that whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. Crowd participation extinguishes our normal psychological capacities and reveals a primal nature which is usually well hidden from view, he said. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd.
Dr Wendy James, in the article ‘The Psychology of Mob Mentality and Violence’ says that three psychological theories address crowd behaviour.
The first one is the Contagion Theory which proposes that crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members that results in irrational and emotionally charged behaviour often referred to as crowd frenzy.
The second one is the Convergence Theory that argues that the behaviour of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together. If it becomes violent, it is not because the crowd encouraged violence, but because people wanted it to be violent and came together in a crowd. The third one is the Emergent-Norm Theory that combines the two above arguing that a combination of liked-minded individuals, anonymity and shared emotions leads to crowd behaviour.
Dr Michael Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, is of the opinion that the lure to defy authorities might also encourage someone to engage in such behaviour.
He says: “Mob violence, including looting, typically ignites with little planning. Many who join are young people attracted to excitement and the lure of defying authority. Typically, a small percentage of hardened criminal characters are found in mobs; they do have an important role in instigating the unbridled lawlessness and setting the vicious tone of its chaos. Alcohol is an important lubricant to fire-setting and other destructiveness for the sake of destroying.” One of the effective ways to eliminate mob violence, Welner says, is to first identify it as criminality, rather than a social phenomenon.