So I’ve been doing quite a bit of research for my planned new show, How To Be A Leader, poring over weird, shouty manuals by business ‘gurus’, reading about the lives of tyrants throughout history, and reading research from psychology and sociology on how someone becomes a leader, and what makes people follow them.

The civil unrest of the past few days made me reflect on a paper I read a couple of months ago, about crowd dynamics. Back then, its conclusions seemed fascinating and insightful to me. Now, they seem very prescient, but also strangely obvious and common sense. The media are predictably split down ideological lines – either this is a sudden, inexplicable surge of feral hooliganism, or the police are clanking fascist automatons intent on crushing liberty and mewling kittens beneath their jackbooted robo-heels. One area of particular controversy is the police tactic of ‘kettling’ – penning in protestors (and whoever happens to be caught with them) for hours on end as a containing tactic. Many people have suggested that this strategy only makes the situation worse, antagonising the crowd.

In The Psychology Of Crowd Dynamics, by Stephen Reicher, (you can read the full paper here – I recommend doing so; it’s excellent) Reicher argues that our understanding of crowd psychology began with the work of Gustave Le Bon, whose book on crowds was first published in 1895. Le Bon was a firm advocate for the idea that being part of a mob exerts an overmastering, primal urge that turns rational human beings into savages. His theories were readily snapped up by repressive leaders and governments, as they neatly delegitimised the voice of the masses. By Le Bon’s reasoning, people gathering to protest invalidated their own demands, as a crowd’s desires could only be driven by mindless, baying barbarism. This also provided an excuse for violent crackdowns against offenders. After all, as part of a seething hive mind, they were no better than animals, and had to be dealt with as such.

All of which might be okay (if incredibly depressing for humanity) if it were supported by research and a thorough methodology, which, of course, it wasn’t (and isn’t). Reicher goes on to explain several later, more nuanced theories of crowd psychology, arguing that people remain rational individuals within supposed ‘mobs’. Even an increased propensity towards violence represents a rational decision in the sense that, if you are going to lob a brick through the window of Topshop, you’re most likely to get away with it when surrounded by dozens of other people doing the same thing.

Most interesting of all, given the controversy over kettling, is what he writes about studies into how moderate parts of crowds become radicalised. I’ll quote from the original piece (I think I’m all right to do so as it’s a very small proportion of the whole paper, but if someone asks me to take it down I’ll do so immediately) because, frankly, I am inarticulate and waffly and Reicher actually knows what he’s talking about:

In a number of studies involving different types of crowd event, including football matches (Stott & Reicher, 1998) student demonstrations (Reicher, 1996) Tax protests (Drury & Reicher, 1999; Stott & Drury, 2000) and environmental protests (Drury & Reicher, in press), a common dynamic has been found to underlie processes of change. Each of these events has different psychological crowds with different identities and different intentions co-existing within the physical crowd (or aggregate). Such change as occurred was amongst ‘moderate’ elements of the crowd who understood themselves as “responsible citizens” acting in socially legitimate ways and who understood those policing them as neutral guarantors of the social order. However, in coming together within a single aggregate, these actors were seen by police as an indistinguishable part of an illegitimate crowd which constituted a danger to the social order. Moreover, given their technological and communicational resources, the police were able to impose this understanding upon the crowd by stopping all of them from continuing in their activities – whether they be marching to a football match, lobbying parliament about student funding, registering opposition to a new tax or registering opposition to the destruction of green areas in order to construct a road.

As a consequence of being impeded in carrying out such “legitimate” activities and in response to being treated as dangerous and oppositional by the police, “moderate” crowd members in turn came to see the police as an illegitimate opposition. Furthermore, having experienced a common fate at the hands of the police, previously disparate crowd members came to see themselves as part of a common category even with more radical elements from whom they had previously felt distanced. This extension of the ingroup category, along with the solidarity that was both expected and obtained amongst ingroup members, led to a sense of empowerment and a willingness to challenge the police. Such challenges confirmed the initial police perception and, in turn, led them to increase the level of constraint they sought to impose on crowd members. In this way a process of escalation was initiated and sustained.

So yeah. Basically, it would seem kettling is about the best method known to social psychology for building group cohesion and radicalising your opponents. I keep reading reports from protesters and journalists that start off with them exchanging friendly banter with the police early in the day, then by the end, it’s all lines of batons and hurtling missiles and indignant rage. One of Reicher’s most important points is that being part of a ‘mob’ changes people permanently. Once it was over, those involved in the St Paul’s riot of 1980 ‘expressed a new found confidence in resisting and making claims of the police and of other authorities… a new sense of pride in themselves and a new sense of their potential’.

The mishandling of peaceful protests is creating increasingly emboldened, hardline activists, who feel at once alienated by contemporary politics, and empowered to do something and stand up for their beliefs. I don’t care much for vitriolic anti-police rhetoric – I think it’s an easy, populist line to spout that doesn’t really mean anything or require any sort of intellectual justification – but, on the other hand, stick me in a hungry, thirsty, freezing crowd for six hours then hammer me with batons, and I don’t doubt you’d find me coming out with it too.

I’m pretty sickened by the patriarchal, condescending tone of our current government – they’ve given up pretending they are employed to serve the will of the public, and now just shake their heads sadly at the ‘passion’ that their dreadful decisions arouse. Nick Clegg has pretty much crossed the moral event horizon now – our only consolation is that his legacy will be that of being the most morally and ideologically bankrupt cynic in British politics for 25 years… admittedly an incredible achievement, given the competition.

1 thought on “Mob Mentality”

  1. Thanks for this. I don’t believe the whole “then they fight you, then you win” thing applies in present day England, but it helps to remind myself that even when we lose, there are things the movement gains.

    Of course that’s no comfort to the people in hospital right now…

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