What is ‘Group Think’? Mob Rule and Society

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Occupy Oakland protesters: Image by Heart of Oak

Newspaper articles about crimes in busy streets and buildings frequently include the phrase, “no one helped.” Stories about women being robbed at gunpoint on busy streets, or children being abducted in large crowds often state that many people witnessed the event, but no one assisted in stopping the crime. Researchers have called this phenomenon ‘group think.’

What Is Group Think?

According to Dr. T. U., a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, California (Dr. U. requested his full name not be used), the increase of people in an area decreases the likelihood of someone stepping in.

When you have a large group of people, the thinking is that someone else will do something, or it is not their place to stop it. You then have a case where people see something happen to another, and do nothing about it.

This type of thinking is most common in individual geared countries. Nations like the United States and Canada are more likely to have crimes take place with no one helping.”

Does This Mean Americans Are Bad People?

According to Dr. U.,

“No, not at all. What it means is that in an individualistic society, such as America, the mentality is about us, rather than others. We’re told to ‘mind our own business’ and to ‘not bother others’ from the time we’re born. These lessons come into play, as we get older.

The studies have shown that individual cultures tend to rely more on others to do things, than the individuals themselves. Rather than fixing a car, we call a mechanic. Rather than helping someone we don’t know, we believe the police will do it. This is the basis of group think.”

Mob mentality is a type of ‘group think’. We hear stories of people doing things they would never do otherwise. A gun-shy soldier will begin firing when others around him do it. A college student will throw rocks at the police when other students do the same. Is the link between negative behaviors in people the same as avoidance behavior?

Are Negative Behaviors Related To ‘Group Think’?

According to Dr. U., there is a link between negative behaviors and a group of people engaging in the same activity.

“Think of Frankenstein. You see the monster and the peasants storm the castle. The group brings flame torches and pitchforks with them, working together for a common purpose, the death of the monster. None of these people appear to be the type that would kill a person by himself or herself. Yet, as a collective, they want monster blood.

Look at the way people gamble in Las Vegas. These people would stop much sooner if they were alone. The visual queue of other people raising bets and staying at the tables when losing encourages the individual to continue playing hands. Protests in America have been littered with the groups doing negative things, while the individuals involved are appalled by the groups’ behavior.

The Occupy Protests taking place, such as in Oakland, are a prime example. The images coming from the scene in Oakland, with the police shooting gas canisters and bean bags into the crowds. The protestors throwing rocks at the police as a response to the shots fired shows the other side of the story. Both groups engaged in behavior in a unit that they wouldn’t as individuals.”

Anonymity Plays A Role

The idea that a person can be caught doing something wrong works as a deterrent to the behavior. People drive the speed limit, even if there are no cops present, to avoid getting a speeding ticket. The fact that one person can be singled out stops individual crimes. When people work in a group, they give up their individuality to be a part of a collective. This collective of people provides protection and anonymity. Unless someone catches a person doing something inappropriate, odds improve of the person not being reprimanded.

When looking at the Occupy Oakland footage mentioned by Dr. U., such as this coverage by Channel 2 in Oakland, individuals can be seen throwing objects, such as a gas canister, towards police officers. The footage makes identification of these persons nearly impossible. Unless someone who saw a specific person tossing something and can prove it, the group provides the person anonymity.

This does not mean that the person won’t be found and charged with the crime. It just means the person will take longer to be caught, if pursued by law enforcement. A group gives people a feeling of security. The more people in a group, the more insulated the person becomes. One on one, it’s easy to determine the culprit. The most people, the harder it becomes.

Thinking Like a Mob

The idea of ‘group think’ is that people think of themselves as a group, rather than a person. In the reverse, it works to keep the people thinking someone else will do it. No matter which way people examine the concept of ‘group think’, in the end, behavior does change in people based on the situation. A group is more likely to let a person do things they wouldn’t do normally. An individual is less likely to act alone when faced with the choice to assist someone in trouble.

Understanding the problem is just the beginning. Researchers are looking at ways to improve the behaviors of people inside a group setting and when faced with a one-on-one situation. Only time will tell if these efforts will improve the well-being of the people of America.

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