When I was in college, a famous boxing match was going to be broadcast at a local bullfighting arena. Tickets to get in were expensive, but my friends and I thought that we could maybe sneak in. We did. Unfortunately, the favored boxer lost, and a riot ensued. Bottles of all types were thrown from the top of the arena and down at the people running for their lives. We ran for our lives, and I clearly saw a man get hit by a glass bottle (about a liter in size) in the head.
That was enough for me. I’ve never participated in a mob since. I was accidentally caught in one in DC when some protestors marched on the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund when I was at George Washington University. But I quickly retreated and stepped aside as they all marched toward a line of police officers waiting for them. I had no dog in that fight.
From those experiences, and some others when I was younger, I’ve been very curious about mob mentality. Psychologists will tell us that mob mentality is part of the human condition. They’ll say that we go along because of certain human characteristics, like excitability and willingness to want to be part of a group. Other evidence points to a lowering of inhibitions when a lot of people are doing the same thing. You see this in riots, where people who would otherwise never steal choose to take a television with them because, hey, everyone’s taking one from the store.
For example, these kids really needed a cellphone in the middle of a riot:
And, like I did at the boxing match, there are those who just follow the rest of the group:
Even those who think that they are the most “independent” thinkers are quick to go with the flow when the flow goes their way. Just look at how well-organized “anarchists” can be:
Here’s a tip: When you have flags and banners and a schedule of speakers at a rally, you’re not being anarchical at all.
And, of course, my favorite people in the world, anti-vaccine people, are quick to fall into line and believe anything they’re told, so long as it fits their view of the world.
But, hey, we’re all human, right?
So a big question in my mind — to which I think I know the answer — is the degree to which mob mentality guides our personal health choices. I think I know answer because I see mob mentality when people make long lines to get vaccinated during an outbreak, or when the “worried well” all show up at the ER. There is also a bit of mob mentality in running events. People will try to run entire marathons even if they’re not ready to do it because, hey, thousands of people are running.
Those are the good choices. There is also mob mentality when we go to the buffet. If we see people take seconds or thirds, we go get seconds… Or at least feel better that we’re eating so much. Smoking? Smokers hang out in bunches together. And they don’t call them drug “dens” because there are people there all by themselves.
So can we flip it around and use mob mentality to get people to make better decisions for themselves? Sure we can.
And we will.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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