The Violent Crowd

Violent and destructive acts are among the most studied forms of crowd behavior. Many historical examples, from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, attest to the destructive power of crowds. A crowd of deindividuated people will not become violent, however, unless a group norm of violence becomes established. In riots, for example, there is usually an identifiable precipitating event (for example, one person smashing a window) that introduces a norm of violence. If a critical mass of people immediately follows suit, a riot ensues. Other crowds, such as lynch mobs, have the norm of violence previously established by their culture or by the group's previous actions.

Further, there is some evidence to suggest that the way in which a crowd of people is viewed by authorities can escalate crowd conflicts. For example, in 1998, European psychologists Clifford Stott and Stephen Reicher interviewed police officers involved with controlling a riot in Great Britain. Their analysis revealed that while police officers recognize that crowds contain subgroups of more dangerous or less dangerous members, they tend to treat all group members as potentially dangerous. The police officers' negative expectations often translate into combative behavior toward all crowd members. By acting on their negative expectations, authority figures often elicit the very behaviors they hope to prevent. This often leads to increased violence and conflict escalation.

Much evidence suggests that there is a direct relationship between the degree of deindividuation and the extremity of a crowd's actions. For example, in 1986, Brian Mullen examined newspaper accounts of sixty lynchings occurring in the first half of the twentieth century. His analysis revealed that the more people in the mob, the more violent and vicious was the event. Similarly, Leon Mann found in his analysis of twenty-one cases of threatened suicides that crowds watching were more likely to engage in crowd baiting (encouraging the person to jump from a ledge or bridge) when crowds were large and when it was dark. On a more mundane level, sports players are more aggressive when wearing identical uniforms than when dressed in their own clothes. Any factor that increases anonymity seems to increase deindividuation and increase the power of social identity and thus increases the likelihood of extreme behavior.

In South Africa, psychological research on these phenomena has been presented in murder trials. People being tried for murder have argued that these psychological principles help explain their antisocial behavior. The use of psychological research findings for these purposes has sparked a great deal of controversy in the field.

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