Mob Psychology—Does a Group Have a Mind?

It is common to think that a person has a body and a mind. But when groups of people act in concerted ways, it seems that they are a singular body controlled by a mind. How is a random collection of people (who act in individual ways) different from one in which they act as if they were a single body controlled by a single mind? This post discusses the emergence of organization in a random collection of individuals, and the main idea is that two invisible constructs—structure and purpose—rather than the physical bodies create organization.

The Psychology of Mob Behaviors

A group of people gathers for a protest at a city center. They shout slogans, as the bystanders look on. Slowly, some of them join the protestors, and the slogans grow louder. Suddenly someone from the group throws a stone at a nearby building, and many people in the group join in doing the same. The random assembly of peaceful demonstrators suddenly becomes a mob and starts a riot.

People are watching a movie in a theater. Suddenly someone shouts “bomb” and starts running. Some people follow him, and quickly the entire theatre panics and follows. One of the runners pushes a person in the front, who falls to the floor. Unmindful of the fallen, those behind them run over and push others in the rush. A group of people enjoying the movie suddenly becomes a stampede.

There are many examples of large-scale emergent behaviors. People who seemed to have been autonomous individuals a while back become suddenly organized into a cohesive body that acts as if it has its own mind and a singular purpose. They do things in the group that none of them would have done individually. What causes the emergence of cohesiveness when it did not exist before?

The Role of Leadership

The simplest explanation of group behaviors is the existence of a leader. For example, in the group of protestors, there is a leader who sends out the invites asking people to gather. In mob behavior, there is one person who throws the stone first and becomes an example for others. Someone shouts “bomb” and starts running before others begin running. Someone pushes another person in front and sets the example for others to start pushing before the runners become a stampede.

So, you could say that there is always a leader who starts the movement, and there are others who follow. The leader demonstrates the courage to take unprecedented action, and the followers then watch for its acceptance. There are many grades of followers—some more eager than others. The less eager followers wait for others to join; the more eager followers are quick to follow.

The capability for such types of actions exists in everyone in a potential form, but the emotion is missing. If that emotion is excited—e.g. as anger to protest, or as fear to run for their lives, or as the greed to steal as much as possible during a riot—then the potential for action becomes the action. The leader plays the role of generating the initial emotion. The emotion is infectious, and it puts other people in a similar state. Thereafter, each person feeds off the other’s emotions producing a cascading effect. When a group of people has been gripped by a shared emotion—anger, fear, greed, etc.—they also begin acting similarly, and it seems that the mob has a mind of its own.

The Importance of Critical Mass

It is entirely possible that the bystanders around a group of protestors never join the protest. They could watch for some time and then walk away. Or even mock the group, shaming them, perhaps causing the group to deplete. The leader may be emotionally charged but the follower might identify with the bystanders than the leader and find the excitement awkward. If many people feel the awkwardness, they leave and the group dies down because people are no longer able to feed off other’s emotions and they themselves become demotivated.

You need a critical mass of people in addition to the leader’s motivation to overcome the feeling of embarrassment or awkwardness. There is safety in the numbers, and most people are not risk-taking pioneers due to fear of looking foolish. Even if the leader starts something important, but if a critical mass doesn’t join, the movement will dwindle as most people will wait for others to join before they take the first step. If the critical mass doesn’t develop quickly, even those who did join the leader initially may slowly leave.

This phenomenon can be understood in analogy to nucleation in the formation of crystals. There may be a high concentration of the solute in a solution, but the solution doesn’t crystallize unless a nucleus is formed. This nucleus is like the leader that triggers crystallization in a solution. Even if a nucleus is formed, but the critical mass doesn’t gather around the nucleus, the nucleus will dissolve back into the solution. However, if the nucleus forms, and there is sufficient critical mass around it, then the crystal will develop rapidly.

The Need for Organization

Many movements are born, grow rapidly, and then die fast. One prominent reason is that they fail to organize themselves for long-term stability. A group of people may be inspired by a leader and decide to follow him, but without a structure—i.e. the division of roles and responsibilities—they will end up competing. They may all desire to take prominent positions and roles, nobody may want to do the menial jobs, or they may not like the role they have been assigned. The competition within the group destroys cohesiveness.

The nucleus that gathers critical mass rapidly also grows haphazardly. On the other hand, moderation in the rate of growth allows enough time for the early participants to organize themselves into distinct roles and responsibilities which means that those who come afterward find not merely the surge of emotion, and the strength of the critical mass, but also the clarity and efficiency of the organization.

Groups collapse due to conflict—e.g. a motivated group of runners in a theater can turn into a stampede because each person wants to get out before the others. Therefore, critical mass is essential to get enough people to trigger the growth, but this growth can’t be too fast to create a stampede. You rather need a critical phase of growth followed by a phase of stability before you can enter the growth phase again. Sometimes, it may even be beneficial to slow the growth and deplete the membership to organize for growth.

The Problem of Balance

We can now phrase the problem of forming a group. You need a strong emotion to attract people, but too much emotion will attract the wrong type—i.e. the excitable and unstable. You need a critical mass and quickly, but if you grow too fast you will create competition and chaos. You need to organize yourself for efficiency, but if you produce a complicated structure you become inefficient.

The problem of forming a group involves balancing emotion, critical mass, and organization. The leader provides emotion and purpose, the critical mass provides safety and stability, and the organization creates efficiency. Doing too much of one instead of the other will eventually be detrimental. Therefore, each of these tendencies works against the other. For example, the person specializing in organizational skills would prefer to figure out the roles and duties before you add more people. Meanwhile, the person interested in growth will say—let’s get as many people as possible before we organize ourselves. The leader may want to inspire and motivate everyone, but he will be hindered by structure. But, if he breaks down that structure, he will only end up creating unwanted competition and chaos as a result.

The key pattern in organizations is the conflict between complementary needs which are simultaneously necessary and yet must be balanced with other equally important needs. The success of the group depends on dividing the time equally between all the different functions. If these functions are divided into different people, balance entails the sharing of power between them. For example, someone must handle the task of selling the vision and purpose, while someone else grows the organizational capability, meanwhile, someone else creates the operational structure. The capability combines with the operational structure which then combines with the purpose to produce an outcome. Therefore, even if they seem mutually conflicting, it is only their combination that produces the actual results.

The Connection to Vedic Philosophy

The study of organizations may seem a mundane topic, but it is not. Organizations too are individuals in the sense that they reflect the basic dynamics of a spiritual individual who has three aspects—called sat (relation), chit (cognition), and ananda (emotion). In the organization, as we discussed, they manifest as organization structure, the members with their capabilities, and the motivating purpose.

An organization is not just the members that make it up. It is also not the members organized in a responsibility structure. It is rather members organized in a structure designed to fulfill a chosen purpose. The purpose is most important and comes first—it brings people together and motivates them toward action. The abilities and the actions of the people come next—they create the stability and momentum that grows the organization. The structure of the organization comes last—it organizes the members for efficiency.

The conflict between these three necessities, their reconciliation through a balance, and their combination to produce an outcome, are themes that I have discussed earlier in the context of psychology. However, they can be reinvented in the context of organizational theory.

Does an Organization Have a Mind?

Many people have in the past toyed with the idea that a collection of individuals is also an individual. For example, it is tempting to think that an ant colony or a beehive is a living system. That the trillions of bacteria in a person’s digestive system act cohesively quite like a single organism. That society is a body whose soul is the goal and purpose for which the society is formed. That our biosphere and ecosystem is a living system, a sociological superorganism called Gaia. That a nation has a soul, a core ideology, a central purpose, which it must enact, live, realize, and fulfill. That a corporation is legally a person with rights, duties, property, and goals, that it implements via its members. This idea manifests in different ways in fields as diverse as politics, sociology, economics, law, management, ecology, and biology.

And yet, the problem is that we cannot find a physical unity among a collection of individuals. If each body has a separate brain, and the mind exists in that brain, then how could there be a single mind if there are separate brains? On the other hand, if we postulate the existence of a group mind, then how could individuals be considered free? They would be controlled as parts of a single body.

This is where we must view both individuals and organizations as hierarchies—as an inverted tree. The root of the tree is independent, but the trunks, branches, and leaves have limited freedom. The freedom grows as one ascends the tree to the root and declines as one descends to the leaves. Therefore, even the leaf has some independence, though it is not totally free. The leader of a society or organization can forcibly exercise control over the entire system, but the followers cannot. They can, of course, choose a new leader or become leaders in the same or another organization. To the extent that the leader depends on the followers, they have influence over the leader.

Since the leader exercises control over a group of individuals, his or her mind becomes the dominant mind of the system. To the extent that other minds follow the leader’s mind, they behave in concert. It doesn’t mean there is a single group mind, although it does mean that the mind of the leader dominates the minds of the followers. We cannot understand this dominant-subordinate structure in a physical science theory because no material object has a privileged position in the universe; this idea is stated in physics as the equivalence of all coordinate systems, and the relativity of all observers. Organizations force us to think of space in a non-uniform way: some positions are highly privileged, some are lesser privileged, and yet others have practically no influence. Space understood as an influence structure forms an inverted tree. So, yes, the organization has a mind: it is the mind of the leader that dominates over the those of the followers.

Local and Extended Minds

A useful way to think of this issue is to think of the mind as something that is both local and extended. As a local entity, it exists as an individual. As an extended entity, it exerts influence over others. This idea is not new; even in physical science, material objects exert forces on other objects. The difference is that this force is now asymmetric. The leader, therefore, exercises a greater force on the follower than the follower on the leader. The variation in the influence is why the failure of an organization is attributed to the leader.

The leader externalizes his personality into the organization, and by this influence, the organization behaves as if it were under the control of the leader, quite like the leader’s body is under the influence of his mind. Therefore, the organization can also be described as a single body under the control of a single mind, if there were indeed a controlling structure. This means that random groups of people—which don’t have an established leadership structure—can not be described as a single body. An anarchic society is not a single body.

Two things distinguish a random collection of people from one that forms a body—structure, and purpose.

If the structure doesn’t exist, then there is no position of privileged control, and hence there cannot be a coordinated behavior. Similarly, even if there is a structure but the purpose is weak or nonexistent, then despite the possibility of control, there is no control being exercised. Therefore, the factors that qualify a person to be treated as an individual are the same as those that qualify a group to become an organization. A random collection of people is not a body with a mind; they are separate bodies with separate minds. However, when these individuals are bound in a structure by a leader, there is a cohesive body with a mind. Mob behaviors are sudden appearances of this structure and leadership. But in general, the phenomenon is not limited to mobs; it is pervasive in society and organizations.