Research Paper: Driving Force Behind Violent Crowds

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Violent Crowds

The phenomenon of violent crowds proves a vexing problem for psychology, biology, and sociology, because the ostensible reasons behind the formation of a violent crowd seem entirely unrelated. For example, violent crowds may form as a result of political protest, through collective "mob justice," or even out of celebration, as in the case of many sporting events. This variety of justifications for the formation of violent crowds serves to mystify the phenomenon, because it makes it appear as if there are no unifying factors between any given crowd. Thankfully, however, research in a number of different disciplines has begun to shed some light on the underlying psychological, social, and bio-mechanical factors that contribute to the formation of all violent crowds, allowing one to better understand the salient driving forces behind violent crowds. In particular, a look at how violence functions in society, the effects of anonymity on individual behavior, and a phenomenon known as "flocking" will reveal that violent crowds are essentially the result of human evolution, both cultural and biological.

To begin this discussion, it will be helpful to consider the notion of violence as such, because there are some misconceptions that need to be cleared up regarding the causes of violence. It is common practice, in the media and public discourse, if not in academia, to regard violence as tied to the particular ideology or psychology of the individual or group perpetrating it.

One might consider the violence committed by political protesters as necessarily tied to their political ideology, or the violence committed by a lynch mob as necessarily tied to its racial ideology, or the violence committed by sports fans as necessarily tied to their team of preference. This is a comfortable and believable position for two reasons. Firstly, one can quite convincingly argue that certain ideologies are inherently more prone to encourage violence in their followers, and secondly, believing that violence is the result of a particular ideology, rather than something common to all humans, allows individuals to view people with different ideologies with a sense of moral superiority by pretending that they would never commit such violence, based on their "superior" ideology. Similarly, one might suggest that certain other variables are responsible for the formation of violent crowds, such as gender, age, race, or even the particular venue in which it occurs, but this approach mistakes the functioning of violence as such with the particular flavor with which any particular violent crowd acts. Thus, this view is problematic because it does not recognize the ideological role played by violence itself.

That is to say, while certain ideologies, cultures, or religions might encourage violence, "violence itself is religious and cultural, i.e., it creates religious and cultural structures by which humans reconcile themselves to each other transcendentally."

In other words, violence itself is something that gives individuals meaning and implicitly ties them together, even when this violence is between individuals or groups. This is because "violence is reciprocal in nature," meaning that "humans experience an imperative to imitate and reciprocate the violence of one's rival in order to gain identity and power."

Violence simultaneously identities the aggressor and the victim, and so functions as a kind of ideology in and of itself because it orders human interaction into a particular schema. Thus, while one may note that certain ideologies are more or less prone to violence, one must simultaneously recognize that violence itself serves to contribute to and perpetuate these ideologies. This is not an attempt to frame this study's consideration of violence as a kind of chicken or egg question (which came first, the ideology that supports violence or the violence that ideology subsequently justifies), but a means of acknowledging that violence functions on a level of interaction and identification somewhat more fundamental than any specific, developed ideological affiliation.

Understanding this helps to explain why violence has been such "a popular form of entertainment" throughout human history, and how violent crowds can form along similar lines regardless of their specific ideologies.

"A crowd of onlookers enjoys a street fight just as the Romans enjoyed the gladiators," because in both instances, violence serves as a means by which individuals can identify themselves as part of a larger schema and order their experiences accordingly.

This is true of the combatants as well as the spectators, because violence demands that anyone aware of it respond to it precisely because it is violent; in other words, because violence represents a (relatively) sudden rupture of whatever social and biological tendencies that usually keep it in check, it cannot be as easily ignored as other actions or behaviors. (This is also why governments and ruling powers often have a vested interest in moderating the representation of the violence they commit through control of the press; imperial wars become much less popular when the violent effects of those wars are more visible, while repressive governments become much more terrifying when their violent potential is hinted at, rather than displayed openly). In a sense, human beings actually enjoy violence, because it offers identity and the sensation of autonomy.

Understanding how violence simultaneously offers identity and a sense of autonomy brings this study to the major underlying psychological factor that contributes to violent crowds, namely, anonymity. While violence offers a means of identification, in the case of violent crowds, this identification corresponds to a kind of partial deindividuation, because individuals are able to identify their actions with the crowd, and not themselves. In this context, anonymity is not strictly concealing one's identity, but rather the dissociation of ones actions from the individual, and as such, represents "one method of minimizing accountability."

This is why in a crowd, individuals need not have their identities necessarily hidden in order to feel anonymous; instead, their actions must simply be attributable to the crowd, and not themselves. This phenomenon has been acknowledged, at least implicitly, in various fictional works; a notable example comes from to Kill a Mockingbird, when the young Scout Finch disperses a lynch mob by identifying its individual members and forcing them to recall the specific interpersonal relationships they have.

However, the effect of anonymity on behavior has more often been studied in academia as it relates to individual behavior, but even then this work can help shed some light on the underlying causes of violent crowds, because as will be seen, identification with a crowd offers precisely the same kind of anonymity that effects individual human behavior.

A 2009 study examined the effects of anonymity on individual behavior, and particularly the likelihood that an individual would engage in self-interested, unethical behavior.

In this case, participants had the option of forging the reported results of coin flips in order to receive a monetary reward.

The researcher found that the likelihood of unethical behavior (cheating) increased with anonymity a notable amount, demonstrating that anonymity, and specifically the disassociation between one's actions and one's identity, makes people more comfortable engaging in unethical behavior regardless of their previously stated ethical positions.

As the researcher notes, this result "was neither surprising nor new," but it does offer some hard evidence in support of the intuition that people behave differently when they do not feel responsible for their actions.

For a more detailed consideration of how anonymity affects violent behavior in particular, one can turn to a 2003 study of violence and aggression in Northern Ireland, which sought to determine the relationship between anonymity and violence, both in terms of frequency and degree.

Once again, the results are somewhat unsurprising, but they do offer more substantial support to the theory of anonymity as a salient driving force behind violent crowds. Of the 500 violent crimes examined, "206 were carried out by offenders who wore disguises to mask their identities," and these 206 examples point towards "positive relationships […] between the use of disguises and several measures of aggression."

In particular, anonymous attackers were 8.3% more likely to inflict serious physical harm, 17.7% more likely to attack multiple victims at the scene, and 18.4% more likely to commit vandalism as part of the attack.

It is worth noting that anonymity works both ways; research into the victims of lynch mobs in the American South between 1880 and 1930 reveals that in addition to race, the social connections of the victim (or more accurately, the lack thereof), influence the likelihood that someone will be attacked, because put simply, "strangers made better targets."

It should also be noted that because this study examined the particular case of Northern Ireland, a substantial amount of the attacks examined were committed by paramilitary organizations or members; however, this does not mean that one cannot extrapolate the results to propose a relationship between anonymity and violence more generally, because in these instances paramilitary association merely represents the particular ideology justifying this violence, in much the same way that sports teams or religions justify other instances of violence.

Thus, it is clear that the anonymity offered by crowds, in terms of freedom from responsibility, is one major… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Driving Force Behind Violent Crowds.  (2012, May 4).  Retrieved April 26, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/driving-force-behind-violent-crowds/936605

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"Driving Force Behind Violent Crowds."  Essaytown.com.  May 4, 2012.  Accessed April 26, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/driving-force-behind-violent-crowds/936605.