The Psychology Behind Crowd Behaviour and Mob Mentality
Awareness Education

The Psychology Behind Crowd Behaviour and Mob Mentality


Researchers have observed the psychological phenomenon of mob mentality in various instances around the world. In India, the most prominent instances usually revolve around politics, religion and/or culture. Conflict between people of different cultures and the common occurrences of prejudice and discrimination can sometimes escalate into riots and violence. Indians hold their political standpoint, culture, and religion so strongly that these sentiments are extremely sensitive. Collective emotions of a particular religious or cultural group can often lead to violent and irrational behaviour. 

India experienced collective anger following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Without any regard for the law, the streets of Delhi and other parts of India were subject to violence, chaos, and killings. During the aftermath, mobs targeted Sikh homes, displacing families and destroying property. Anger and grief had turned into a deadly rampage.

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What is Mob Mentality? 

Mob mentality is referred to as unique behavioural characteristics displayed by individuals as part of a group. This group consists of aggressive and panicked individuals who are irrational in their thinking. Usually, this kind of mentality creates an atmosphere of hysteria and herd behaviour wherein the rational human being turns selfish and concerned with only oneself.

People involve themselves in such behaviours during periods of intense arousal and cause harm and damage to other individuals. During an environmental or medical catastrophe, such people may mob trucks to get supplies, trash each other’s homes or riot in the street due to resource scarcity. Thus, observers note that members of a mob typically share similar feelings, thoughts, and actions aimed toward a common objective.

Heightened emotionality is a key characteristic of mob behaviour due to which the individuals tend to become unreasonable, unforgiving and unstable. For example, an aggressive mob may engage in activities such as damaging public property, breaking down buses and trains, and burning things that they would never do when alone. 

Read More: Mob Theory: The Psychology Behind Behaviour of a Huge Crowd

Identity Fusion 

Researchers have theorized that mob behaviour prevails when people experience identity fusion. Identity fusion is basically when an individual’s idea of oneself becomes fused with their identity as group members. There exists a fine difference, a psychological divide between personal and social identities, however, some people may feel fused with a group. These individuals appear to blur the self-other barrier, viewing the group as an extension of their self. Such a phenomenon is commonly observed in relational groups such as family members, close friends, etc.

However, people also tend to feel fused with collective groups even though they are unfamiliar with most of the members. For such people, their group identity is extremely personal because they care about the outcomes of the group as much as they care about their personal goals. These individuals develop a sense of personal responsibility to act on behalf of the group since their devotion to the group is extraordinary.

Codol (1975) discussed the rationale behind such behaviour by stating that this tendency derives from the need and motivation to present oneself as more in conformity with the social norms than others in the group.  Basically, there is a conflict between two processes, one of deindividuation and the need to belong to a social group and the other is a search for social differentiation and deindividuation.

For example, during the Salem witch trials in 17th-century colonial America, individuals were driven by the desire to prove their piety and dedication to the Puritan religious community. They were often trying to outdo each other in their displays of religious fervour and commitment to rooting out perceived evil. This conflicting need for social differentiation and belonging led to brutal and irrational accusations and executions. People with high motivation for such extreme behaviours were inclined towards what they could do to demonstrate their loyalty and zeal for the group rather than considering the broader implications for the community.

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Theories of Crowd Behaviour 

1. Classical theories 

Gustave Le Bon proposed that individual minds come together to form a collective consciousness, which results in decreased personal responsibility and exhibition of behaviours, that would not be performed by an individual alone. Due to the presence of others, the enthusiasm of each member of the group increases which leads to heightened emotions and actions which are extreme.

There exists anonymity in a group which leads to a loss of self-awareness in individuals regarding the nature of their actions. It is speculated that the group members may not always believe in the ideology of the leader, but due to enthusiasm and identification with the group, the individuals may carry out extreme behaviours as directed by the leaders. 

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2. Deindividuation theory 

Leon Festinger and colleagues described that when individuals are in a group, they tend to lose self-awareness and individuality. This may lead them to behave in ways that they wouldn’t typically when alone. Researchers observed antisocial or mischievous behaviour in children during Halloween. Children were more likely to steal candy when they were in groups and wearing costumes that masked their identities.

Such anonymity and group setting make them less accountable for their actions. Philip Zimbardo explained that anonymity and sensory overload lead people to be deviant and act in anti-normative ways. Stanford prison experiment showed deindividuation wherein participants who were assigned to be guards started to behave in an abusive manner towards prisoners.

This was because of anonymity and the authority of the roles that they were assigned. Deindividuation is also observed in online platforms wherein individuals feel anonymous and exhibit behaviours of cyberbullying, trolling and other aggressive behaviours. 

3. Convergence Theory 

Convergence theory states that crowd behaviour doesn’t come into existence because of the formation of a crowd, rather it’s the particular individuals that bring such behaviour into the crowd. The crowd is considered to hold feelings of racial hatred on an individual, it is because of this preexisting opposition to a particular group that leads to the rise of crowds. For example, the civil rights movement in the US consisted of individuals who were already committed to fighting racial inequality and injustice. These people converged to form a powerful crowd to lead protests and riots. 

Read More: The Psychology Behind Honour Killing

Common Causes of Mob Behaviour 

  • Social causes: Lack of education, unemployment, conflicting beliefs, casteism, religious conflicts, and the government’s failure to provide safety and dignity for the poor all lead to mob behaviour. 
  • Misinformation in the form of fake news: Rumours tend to spread easily on the internet since there are no restrictions or barriers to the regulation of data. Fake news can spread easily while the truth is still being discovered. When people’s sentiments are extreme with fake news, it can easily lead to violence and riots. For example, fake rumours spread through WhatsApp about child kidnapping led to the killing of seven people in Jharkhand in 2017. 
  • Politics: Political propaganda consists of exploiting existing prejudices and enticing the communities by making provocative speeches based on caste, religion or ethnicity. This leads to political polarization which causes societal tensions and creates an environment where mob violence is encouraged and justified. For example, politicians in Myanmar have provoked violence against the Muslim minority community which led to atrocities committed against them. 
  • The harm of Silence: Prejudices such as racism, sexism, religious intolerance etc exist in society which disrupt the social order. Technological advancements have led to such information spreading quickly and loudly presenting hateful ideas of violence and discrimination. When government officials remain silent and tend to be inactive in resolving the issues, people assume authority in carrying out violence and consider it to be acceptable. For example, the 2002 Gujarat riots of the Godhra train burning led to the mobs targeting the Muslim community based on misinformation and rumours. The failure of the intervention of the state increased the tension between the communities and resulted in societal restlessness and violence. 

Read More: Psychology Behind Inequality

Solutions to the Problem of Mob Behaviour 

  • Faith in the Judicial system: Mob behaviour arises when people attempt to take the law into their own hands while trying to punish the alleged offenders. Because of this, there is an immediate need to regain the faith of the people in the judicial system. Courts should be set up in a way to regulate speedy trials and justice. 
  • Illegal measures: Mob behaviour is a crime against the state since it denies the offender the right to legal protection and a chance to defend themselves. Mob violence denies the state to take action through the legal route of a fair trial and undermines the rule of the law and authority of the state. 
  • Illegal Social Media Use: Community guidelines need to be established on social media platforms that restrict any post that promotes discrimination against any social group. There is also a need to control the spread of fake news. Awareness rallies must be held in rural areas to educate people to be sceptical of every piece of news that they come across. This will help control mob violence emerging from rural communities. 

In India, mob violence has posed a serious problem creating tensions between religious communities. There exists a lack of specific laws against mob violence and thus the fight against mob violence has just begun. It is important that the leaders of the country speak up and protect the masses, rather the silence of the political parties is sending off a somewhat cryptic message and indirectly supporting such acts. Mob violence perpetrates one of the heinous hate crimes committed daily, all in the name of religion.

References +
  • Swann, W. B., Jr., University of Texas, Austin, Universidad Nacional de Educacio´n a Distancia (UNED), Seyle, D. C., University of Texas, Austin, & Universidad Nacional de Educacio´n a Distancia (UNED). (2009). Identity fusion: the interplay of personal and social identities in extreme group behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 995–1011.
  • ystander-Effect.pdf

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