December 2nd, 2008
06:17 PM ET

Trampling the holiday spirit

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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.

Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Gail Saltz • Wal-Mart
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. t.Schuller

    I Could not agree more. but i feel we boycott black friday for companies. They need to stretch out there sales so people do not need to get so worked up over items that will not be available to all.

    December 3, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  2. A.Callender

    T. Ahmad> I agree with you whole heartedly, they should be help accountable for their actions, an innocent man, doing his job is now dead, over what? a sale....they should have locked down wal-mart and took all names and filed involuntary manslaughter on them all, this would maybe curb this kind of behavior, but NO, we lable it and make excuses...not only are they to blame for that mans death but so are their excuses.

    My prayers to the Family of this man. God bleess you all.

    December 3, 2008 at 2:42 pm |
  3. Martha

    What is really sad about this is that there are always other sales during the year. So what if the prices aren't slashed as much as on Black Friday, just go to another sale some other time. There is really no need to act barbaric just to get something that is not a necessity.

    December 3, 2008 at 1:54 pm |
  4. meka......ky

    First of all YES i belive that people are to blame for this mans death. But i also belive that wal- mart knew that something like this can happen and yes they should have been perpared for this.And yes i belive that some people do sue for anything .
    Sometime you have to make an example out of people to get people to do the right thing.and if sueing them works than that is just what it is. I do not go after thanksgiving shopping because i saw it coming. But lets not hold the ones to blame that could have took better measures to ensure that not only their employees but also their customers are safe.

    December 3, 2008 at 1:51 pm |
  5. Val

    The appropriate thing to do for every single person who entered that store at opening time is to turn themselves in to the police on charges of involuntary manslaughter and suffer the consequence. Sadly, the same economic pressures that caused this incident will prevent anyone from wanting to take the blame. However, if just one person-one humane being- will step forward and say, "I did this. I was in the mob, and therefore I am RESPONSIBLE" it would shed so much light at the end of this tunnel of despair that our economy has gotten us into this year.

    December 3, 2008 at 12:10 pm |
  6. T. Ahmad

    Last night while watching the report about the trampling incident, there were questions about Wal-Mart possibly being sued for not having enough security and for setting the perfect recipe for this disaster. I am so sick of everyone blaming someone else for his or her actions and choices. When will we stand up and take responsibility for our own decisions, choices and actions? Why do we search for someone or something else to blame?

    This mob of people trampled this poor man to death; each individual should stand up and take responsibility for their own actions. We are human beings. Where is our regard for others and for life itself? Where is our conscience? Why is Wal-Mart to blame for people acting like raging lunatics? No sale or material item is more important than precious life itself.

    December 2, 2008 at 10:48 pm |