The Sociology of Mob Behavior and Crowd Control

Sigmund Freud discussed mob behavior as a process that is different from individual behavior. When in a crowd, people will behave differently than they would when alone. There is a joining of ways of thinking into a similar way of thinking for the individuals as a whole. Individual differences go away, excitement builds, and individuals become less aware of their actions.

The herd mentality is said to be different between animals and humans, allegedly because humans have vastly more mentality. But that mentality, or independence of advanced thought, is expected to go away when in the crowd or herd. The crowd does not have intentions or thoughts that are very far away from the intentions and thoughts of the individual, however, in some classic theory. But classic theory does not account for the widely diverse crowds that can form today.

The crowd provides anonymity and the power of the group, leading to different behavior than if the individual is clearly identifiable and operating with no support from others.

To this effect, certain individuals can urge or lead the crowd or group into certain behaviors. Large crowds can operate quite well without forming into mobs. It is the individuals who trigger or spur action that causes tides and ebbs to flow through the like minded individuals in the crowd.

In the aftermath of the recent Haitian earthquake, starving and long suffering people managed to wait patiently in well organized lines, until certain individuals worked through the crowds, spreading lies and rumors about the food and water being tainted, or deliberately causing disruption by becoming aggressive when near or at the head of the line. This was clearly intended to run people off so that some could gather large amounts of food and water for themselves or for a specific group.

Crowds of humans are almost automatically of like mind when a threat to all members is presented. The resulting panics and attempts to flee are the actions of people who are thinking in the same way. When the crowd is already formed of people who have the same emotionally heightened political or social minds, then either leadership at the speaker’s podium, or individuals working the crowd can motivate the mass into taking action that they would never take while in smaller groups or alone.

As a result, security and law enforcement can use video records to analyze, speculate and plan for certain triggers to be pulled, based on the nature, mood and like mindedness of the crowd, it’s potential mental and substance abuse situation, and any events that may present a trigger to the mass as a whole.

Crowd control begins with channelling and confining the mass with physical barriers, stanchions, placement of forces, and other barriers to the uncontrolled spread of people. There are analysts on the ground, often indistinguishable from the crowd, who can observe the behavior of individuals who are either known to start problems or who indicate, through their behavior and speech, that they may start problems.

Crowd control can include planning that anticipates certain standard movements of people toward and away from certain goals, such as a permitted protest location or a symbolic point, such as a courthouse or a conference center. The planning can include anticipating the effect of the program and speeches as well as gathering intelligence about the types of people who are more likely to appear and to become a scene or happening of their own, off the official roster.

In terms of the media, the problem in recording these events, while at ground level, is that the more visually exciting events are recorded, while the actions of those who are actually not involved, are attempting to leave, or are spectating are not recorded. The media, as opposed to law enforcement, often has no knowledge of the crowd and it’s key players in order to follow them and to find out if and how they might trigger action.

The circular problem is that law enforcement is not always able to or wants to determine who is doing what. As a result, law enforcement can engage in it’s own form of herd and mob behavior, emotionally heightened, anonymous, with it’s own triggering individuals, well armed and protected and indiscriminately attacking anyone, regardless of their activity, physical condition or presentation of threat. This puts the entire mob under general threat, and the mob will react by either attempting to flee or to stay and fight.

In summary, it takes either an extremely like minded crowd or an obvious threat to a diverse crowd for the complete herd mentality to quickly and completely take effect. The alleged “herd” mentality actually involves many more different types of behavior and actions than is assumed. Some are trying to help others, are trying to record events, are passively spectating and supporting, are acting to stop or help others, or are trying to escape to safety when generalized disruptions or threats occur. And law enforcement can actually trigger mob behavior, becoming a form of mob in itself.

Wikipedia, “Crowd Psychology”