Mob Mentality

Mar 20 2016


If we examine what is happening in the Republican primary race regarding one of the candidates, we can see that during the protests, on the part of the protestors and the supporters, there is evidence of a mob mentality which most people would view as negative. But the political scene also calls forth what is known as positive herd mentality where there is a feeling of well-being. The reactions of the crowds on Tuesday night while another candidate was speaking after winning primaries in five states would be a positive example.

Think of the last time you were in attendance at a sporting event. Did you sit among the fans of the opponents and cheer at the top of your lungs for your favorite team?  Probably not. But if you were sitting among fellow fans or at home watching the event, I’ll bet you cheered or even, at times, shouted at the television when there was a bad call or a dropped ball. 

Mob mentality can be positive or negative. During WWII the SS headed up the murders of millions of Jews. When confronted with their murders at the Nuremburg trials, their answer was, “I was only following orders.”  Maybe. But there was a large element of mob mentality in the cohesion of the SS and in their misplaced loyalty to Hitler.

Why does negative mob mentality happen? Many people feel they can’t be held responsible for negative actions since the negative actions are the group’s, not their own. Second, the larger the mob, the more the individuals lose self-awareness and become willing to engage in more negative acts that they otherwise would not consider.

What do you think happened on that long ago Palm Sunday? Was it a case of mob mentality? Or did every one of those individuals know exactly why they were cheering and laying their coats on the ground? For our purposes today, I’m going to look at the story just as it is.

Jerusalem during Passover was packed – wall-to-wall people. Conquerors and kings had for years entered cities in a procession, so as the one called the  “King of the Jews,” Jesus entered Jerusalem during the busiest time of the year in a procession, riding on a donkey, and with his disciples and eventually the crowd throwing palms at his feet in one depiction and putting coats down in another. Caught up in the hysteria of the moment, the crowd shouted, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Glory to God in heaven.”

Do you think they all knew who he was? I don’t think so. Do you think they had all heard of him? I don’t think that either. There was no CNN in the first century. So why did they shout and toss palms and call him a king? Because everyone else was doing it! For the same reason the crowd engaged in another type of mob mentality when they cried “crucify him” on Friday. Because everyone else was doing it! Mob mentality occurs because people are afraid to be different; people are afraid to buck the prevailing thought of the day, or the moment, or people panic.

I am certain that if anyone in that crowd had heard Jesus during his ministry, they would have cried out on Sunday, but should have rebelled against the will of the crowd on Friday. But they didn’t.

What makes us go along with herd mentality or mob mentality? What makes us do things diametrically opposed to what we know is right when confronted by a group of others who do not agree with us? Part of the answer is fear. Fear that we might be ostracized; fear that we might be injured; fear that we might be killed; perhaps fear that we might lose our jobs if we are too outspoken. Part of the answer is the perception that there is safety in numbers.

What makes a person who clearly knows that a course of action is wrong stand up to a crowd? Part of that answer is confidence, conviction and commitment. Part of the answer lies in the fact that they take time to think before acting.

What makes some people stand up and clearly take a risk to do or say something that has not been said before; that has not been done before; that goes against the prevailing sentiment? Integrity and courage. For some people, it is simply the right thing to do.

The crowd was afraid. During his entire life, Jesus was committed and absolutely convinced that the way in which he lived his life and the lessons that he was preaching were the ways that we should live. He didn’t waffle when someone didn’t like what he was doing. He stood up to the Pharisees because he believed that their outward actions of piety did not mirror what their relationship with God ought to be. What a difference between mob mentality and personal integrity. Jesus had personal integrity; the Palm Sunday crowd didn’t; and the Friday mob certainly didn’t.

Five middle school students waited inside the entryway of a school. The group decided that they would beat up the next student who walked in wearing a red coat or jacket. Why? No one knows. But the unfortunate student who happened to be wearing a red outer garment on that day was severely beaten and had to be hospitalized. When one of the students was questioned during an expulsion hearing about why he took part, he answered, “I was afraid not to.” He knew it was wrong, but the crowd was stronger than his convictions.

That is what mob mentality can do to a person; and the younger the person, the more illiterate the person, the more frustrated the person may be with the status quo, the more inclined that person is to go along with mob mentality without thinking of the consequences. It’s the crowd acting, not the individual is the logic behind doing what we ordinarily would not do 

Crowd behavior can be dangerous in situations when emergencies occur. Crowds have a tendency to react in groups. Escape behavior becomes group behavior, and unless someone can intervene, deaths occur. Individuals attempt to move faster than normal, interactions between individuals become physical, exits can become arched and clogged, escape is slowed by fallen individuals serving as obstacles, who very frequently get trampled to death, individuals display a tendency towards mass or copied behavior, and alternative or less used exits are overlooked. But remember – 80% of the people freeze because others around them are freezing. 10% of the people panic and cause the type of situation I just described, and if the 80 join the panic 10, the remaining 10% who have their heads screwed on straight will not be able to do anything to move the crowd and will have to fight to save themselves.

What decision will we make when faced with mob mentality. Will we be afraid, so afraid that we will do something that we clearly know is wrong? Or will we remain so grounded in our faith and so convinced that God will be with us that we will make the honorable and right decision? Our politicians have trouble with this; our business leaders have trouble with this; everywhere we look around us, people have trouble with this. What will we do when we are faced with that defining moment when our lives or the lives of others may depend on the decision? Will we act as Jesus did, or as the crowd did? Amen.