People in crowds do not spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts

The viewpoint that humans in large groups are dangerous has informed the policies and tactics of governments and police forces for more than a century, and like many prescientific musings, much of it is wrong. David McRaney investigates in the latest episode of You AreNot So Smart.

It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.

In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.

Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.

This episode’s guest, Michael Bond, is the author of The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do, and reading his book I was surprised to learn that despite several decades of research into crowd psychology, the answers to most questions concerning crowds can still be traced back to a book printed in 1895.

Gustave’s Le Bon’s book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, explains that humans in large groups are dangerous, that people spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts who are easily swayed and prone to violence. That viewpoint has informed the policies and tactics of governments and police forces for more than a century, and like many prescientific musings, much of it is wrong.

Listen in this episode as Bond explains that the more research the social sciences conduct, the less the idea of a mindless, animalistic mob seems to be true. He also explains what police forces and governments should be doing instead of launching tear gas canisters from behind riot shields, which as he explains, actually creates the situation they are trying to prevent. Also, we touch on the psychology of suicide bombers, which is just as surprising as what he learned researching crowds.

After the interview, I discuss new research into how hiring quotas work and don’t work in loose societies vs. tight societies.

cookie

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my book, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Laura Lee Gooding who submitted a recipe for stained-glass window cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Image of hockey fan: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop

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Published 4:34 pm Thu, Jul 31, 2014

About the Author

David McRaney is a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. He's the author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. He has written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Psychology Today. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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