The outrageous attack on the U.S. Congress when in session has generated an understandable outcry in the United States and around the world. It has been taken to illustrate the fragility, or even weakness, of democracy. But the social psychological processes it demonstrates have been given less consideration.
Crowds became a topic for serious study by social scientists at the end of the 19th century when Gustave LeBon explored what gave them their significance. He insightfully pointed out that any large group of people developed a focus as a crowd when all those involved accepted one dominant idea. If this influence indicates a common goal the stage is set for the crowd to act. LeBon was clear that the influential ideas that motivated a crowd to act never emerged from within the crowd but came for an external source that was seen as an authority. The outgoing president’s simple, totally unfounded, statement that the election was rigged and that his supporters should “not take anymore,” is just the sort of adolescent call to action that LeBon would have recognized.
In the wake of Darwinian ideas sweeping through the sciences LeBon argued that a motivated crowd was impulsive and lost the capacity to reason because it had returned to an atavistic, animal-like state. However, current theories of crowd behaviour see individuals in a crowd as very aware of their actions. It is the power of being part of a group with which they identify and an awareness of the power the mass of individuals can exert that inspires them to action.
A colleague of mine that studied how crowds moved to action insisted that the most dangerous point is when they shout, or better still, sing, in unison. At that point they become both aware of their combined energy and committed to the actions of the mob. But in addition, the simplification of what their purpose is gets support from well-known cognitive processes, which have caused financial collapses and many other debacles caused by people all having the same distorted thought processes. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman got the Nobel Prize for economics (there isn’t one for psychology) in 2002 for elaborating on the common distortions in thinking and their impact on decision making, identifying them short-cuts or heuristics that enable complex processes to be reduced to something that can be understood. They are often of value but can support to very poor decisions.
Individuals in the mob who attacked the Capitol, when interviewed afterwards, illustrated text-book examples of these destructive heuristic. The most powerful example was the ‘confirmation bias.’ They only sought or remembered examples that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs. This also has the social-psychological value of keeping them within their existing network of like-minded individuals. Any challenge to their existing view that the election was fraudulent, even from 60 independent judges is re-interpreted into their existing cognitive framework. A distortion in thinking that is common in stalkers who interpret any insistence from their target that they be left alone as an indication of wanting a relationship.
Their ability to get into the Capitol so readily doubtless also added support to their belief that they were in the right. Once there they were incensed to wreak havoc as a way of imposing some influence, just as young vandals destroy bus-shelters or spray walls with graffiti. The membership of this marauding group gives them a feeling of power and strengthens their identity. It therefore has to be the case that many of these individuals did not have a strong sense of self, or self-esteem that they responded so readily to the esteem taken from the actions of the mob they were part of.
The mob can be harnessed to save lives as well as to be destructive.
It is well-established, and consequently widely used by advertisers, that the strongest influence on behavior is social contact. What others suggest, say or do has a direct impact on the people with whom they are in contact. I was able to demonstrate this when I gave advice about how to reduce accidents to a major manufacturing industry that used potentially very dangerous processes. The management thought that posters and encouragement from the top was the way forward. It was only when I got them to set up local groups with workers who were in touch with each other on a day-to day basis that it was possible to set in motion social processes that managed to get rid of all accidents in the most dangerous part of the factory.
When considering how to change behavior in relation to the coronavirus pandemic we can learn from how Trump harnessed the social interactions of a mob to do his bidding. Instead of central authorities providing graphs and lockdown laws, they need to get a simple message introduced into people’s interactions with others. Where this is a natural part of social interactions, such as on small islands like the Isles of Scilly or larger ones like New Zealand, the control of the virus has been impressive. That is more difficult to achieve in a large country, but the message is the same. Local authorities need to be given the power to create local influence. The mob can be harnessed to save lives as well as to be destructive.