Editor's note: Dr. Gail Saltz is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Gail Saltz
Over the weekend a group of waiting shoppers trampled and killed a temporary Wal-Mart worker who was standing at the door to let shoppers in. How in the world could this happen? How could anyone do such a thing?
This was sadly a case of the effects of group dynamics, or in other words mob mentality. When you put people into a group you tend to increase their level of arousal and excitement. Another phenomena of a group is that of shared responsibility, that each individual feels less directly responsible and “delegates” his own superego (conscience) to the group. The particular group in question here were people feeling the effects of this recession and fearful that they will not be able to get enough stuff for the holidays, thinking they NEED the sales to make their family and themselves happy. This added to the feeling of rationing, that there is a limited commodity of stuff, money, sales items and if they don’t get it now then they never will. This is of course untrue and in no way justifies anyone’s actions, none the less it is this desperate perception that likely fueled extreme behavior.
Mobs can incite all kinds of awful behavior. “Fans” have set fires and destroyed property at sporting events. Concert goers have groped women and jumped on top of and hurt people. Gangs have robbed and destroyed stores in city blackouts. Taken as individuals many of these people would never ever have done something so amoral. But put together they incite each other, embolden the crowd and lose their moral compass.
This weekend’s horror was likely done by a group of anxious, excited shoppers who individually would never have done this and are likely feeling tremendous guilt and remorse that they were in anyway involved. Some will feel so uncomfortable that they may be in utter denial they were involved at all. It speaks to the power that one psyche can have upon another and to the immense power and loss of boundaries in a group. It is also evidence of the tremendous anxiety people are feeling in the face of the economic pressures and the unknowns that financially lay ahead. We need to be aware of the ability of such fears to move us, to make us behave in ways that we will regret. Desperation can mess with your conscience and so we all need to be on the alert to remember there is no material thing worth hurting someone for. Although a group can have a negative impact, it can also have a positive one. What we need is for people to gather together in support of each other, to lend a hand to your neighbor, be a listener to your friend, be compassionate to your loved ones. And remember grouping together for support requires no stuff.
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