I Would Never! - Can an Individual's Behavior Change Simply be Because They Were in a Group of People?

I Would Never! - Can an Individual's Behavior Change Simply be Because They Were in a Group of People?

The psychology of human behavior is a strange, fickle, and often elusive thing. Everyone of “sound mind” will tell you that they make their own decisions and choices in life. Having one’s mind controlled by someone else is nothing aspired to by anyone. Even as far back as “the arrival of printing—thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people’s minds…” (Crystal 189), possession and control of one’s own thoughts and actions has been of the highest concern to us all. However, many of today’s experts say we don’t always have that control. Many experts believe that a person will act differently when in a group of people than the same person would act if alone. Could an individual’s behavior change (either in language or deed) simply be because they were in a group of people?

To answer this question, first I need to find out about this type of behavior. The experts call this behavior, “herd behavior”. This type of behavior is also known as “crowd hysteria”, or “mob mentality”. When I hear the term “mob”, I think of bad things, such as riots. Are these groups of people always bad? Is herd behavior a good thing or a bad thing? I also wonder, if herd behavior is a bad thing, are there exceptions to the rule? Do I know anyone who has experienced this type of behavior first hand? Have I ever experienced herd behavior? What exactly is this type of group behavior?

Albert Phung, a psychology degree graduate from the University of Alberta, describes herd behavior as, “the tendency for individuals to mimic the actions (rational or irrational) of a larger group. Individually, however, most people would not necessarily make the same choice.”(Key Concepts). In an experiment designed by social psychologist Solomon Asch, the extent of this tendency was examined. His experiment involved groups of 8 to 10 people each, asked to identify which two of four lines on a card were of the same length. Only one person in each group was actually a test subject. The other people in each group were told to give wrong answers. Answers were to be given aloud, with the test subject going next to last. One third of the test subjects went along with what the group said even though they were clearly wrong. In subsequent experiments, Asch varied the numbers in test groups from 1 to 15. He found that small groups of 3 or 4 were just as influential as larger groups (Hayes, “A Study of Conformity”). I was having trouble believing this data, and finding little statistical information on individuality. I decided to conduct a small survey of my own.

I would ask the most stubbornly individualistic people I know, my friends and family, how they felt on the subject. My survey consisted of five yes or no questions:
• Would you ever say (or do) anything just because everyone around you was say (or doing) it?
• Have you ever done (or said) something just to fit in with the people around you?
• Would you ever say (or do) something knowing the people around you will not like it (or possibly you)?
• Have you ever been in a group of people and start to wonder why all of you were doing (or saying) something?
• Have you ever done “the wave” at a sporting/music event?

The majority of this group of 11 respondents agreed (9 to 3) that they would never do or say anything just because the people around them were doing it. An over-whelming majority (11 to 1) said they would face not being liked for their opinions. Most of the group admitted to experiencing a questioning of motives behind the group experience they were participating in. Finally, even though there were a few people who denied ever having done something to “fit in”, who hasn’t experienced being a teenager without having done this at least once? It would seem that most people insist that they are in control of their own actions, and couldn’t be influenced otherwise.

Initially, the thought of being influenced by the people around me was outrageous! I would never be influenced that way! Or would I? I started thinking about the first concert I ever went to. It was Ted Nugent’s Great White Buffalo Tour. There were thousands of people crammed into Veterans Memorial Auditorium that night. I watched everyone and everything, because I didn’t want to miss any part of this new experience. There were lines for everything; restrooms, beer/food vendors, and the t-shirt/souvenir stands. The seats were great, center and half way up the middle level, a perfect view of the entire stage! Then the lights lowered, and everyone started screaming. It was time for the band to start!

Although not a fan of heavy metal music, I was familiar with it. I often heard it filtering up through the floor from my older brother’s bedroom. After playing several songs, Nugent played the signature song of the tour, “Great White Buffalo”. As the band started playing, smoke filled the air over the band’s heads. Then slowly becoming visible, through the mist, emerged a huge white buffalo head. The place went nuts! Almost everyone in the arena was on his or her feet, clapping, screaming, and/or singing along with the song. I spent most of the evening on my feet, singing along with the songs I knew, and clapping my hands until they were red and sore. I had a wonderful and memorable time that night. I’m glad I decided to go, even though I was fully expecting to not have a good time. I didn’t particularly like the music after all.

Suddenly it dawned on me, I had been singing! I don’t sing! Not ever (or so I thought until now)! I don’t even sing along with the car radio! What had happened to me at the concert? Why had I not only been singing, but doing it at the top of my lungs? Was I a victim of what is called “crowd hysteria”, or “herd behavior”, possibly even “mob mentality”? According to Ron Kurtus, I had been one of the “participants in a group… (who) are often taken up with the emotions of the group… (“Types of Behavior”)”. I believe that the anonymity of the situation was also a factor. This had been a positive experience for me. Even though terms like “hysteria” and “mob” bring to mind negative things, is herd behavior always negative?

Whether “mob mentality” has a positive influence or a negative influence, although arguable, seems to be found in the description of the event. When identifying a group of people, we often use language to express our opinion of that group. We use such adjectives as “activist”, and “advocate” when describing an individual, also “association” and “collaboration” when describing groups of people in a positive light. We use terms such as “protestor”, and “demonstrator” when describing an individual, as well as “mob”, and “horde” when describing groups of people in a negative light.

There are examples of group behavior which are positive, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s bus boycott in Alabama, the protest of President Bush during a trip to Canada (most were anti Iraqi war protesters), and more recently the harmless “smart mobs...(that) …have no lofty social or political ambitions. Their goal is to meet in a public place and perform a random and obscure and generally absurd act… just for the sheer experiential heck of it.”(Rachmiel). Most of us could probably name (far too many) examples of groups of people that had negative results. Who hasn’t heard of such things as the “L.A. riots”, soccer stadium tramplings, Ku Klux Klan lynchings, and more recently the “flashmobs” that have been destructive in South Philadelphia? But are there examples of people who have stood alone against the great majority (and possibly great adversity), no matter the amount of pressure on them, and no matter the cost?

History gives us several examples of people who started their illustrious careers “bucking the system”. People such as Mahatma Gandhi, who although being beaten and arrested many times, used peaceful tacts such as fasting, and civil disobedience to change the way the Indian people were treated by the British. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, convicted of sabotage and treason, in his fight against apartheid. Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa. More recently there are the people aboard the doomed plane in Pennsylvania, who tried to retake the plane from terrorists in the September 11 attacks. These people faced possible death when they made the choice to act contrary to the group. And as we know, they did pay with their lives.

Group behavior, no matter what name it goes by, is something that has been documented by experts. In examining this type of behavior, we find that it can be a positive or a negative thing. We also find that there are people who, no matter the pressure from outside forces, will stand alone (if necessary) for what they believe in. With these facts in mind, I leave you to ponder the possibility of group behavior on your choices. The next time you vote, is your choice your own? Or was your choice solely due to political affiliation (Democrat, Republican, etc.)? The next time you are at a sporting event, or concert doing “the wave” ask yourself this question. Did you really want to stand up with your arms in the air, or are you just “fitting in” with the crowd around you?

Works Cited
Crystal, David. “2B or Not 2B?” The Blair Reader, 7th ed. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011. 188-195. Print.
Hayes, Brian. “Solomon Asch experiment (1958) A Study of Conformity.” Age-of-the-sage.org. Spiritual Insights Quotations. Oct. 2002. Web. 17 May 2010.
Kurtus, Ron. “Types of Behavior Often Studied.” School-for-champions.com. School for Champions LLC. 14 Dec. 2007. Web. 17 May 2010.
Phung, Albert. “Key Concepts No. 5: Herd Behavior.” Investopedia.com. Investopedia ULC. 2010. Web. 18 May 2010.
Rachmiel. “Mob mentality: The good, the bad, and the just plain silly.” Everything2.com. The Everything Development Company. 22 Sept. 2003. Web. 17 May 2010.