With need to conform & individuality fighting for position, who wins?

Are we programmed to make bad decisions? Do you think you’re a good person? We all like to think so. Would you always stick by your morals? To your individual sense of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? Turns out, our proclivity to do good or bad is less to do with our innate character, and more to do with the circumstances we end up in.

Herd, mob, pack or gang mentality describes how people can be influenced into behavioural choices when in group situations. These are often choices made on a predominantly emotional, rather than pragmatic, basis. Individually, it is rare we would make decisions that go against our own morals and beliefs, but when the decision is decentralized, and sense of self is taken away, it can often result in madness.

A 2011 Derren Brown show, ‘Remote Control’, explored this ‘deindividuation’, the loss of self-awareness when in groups. Audience members were masked, in order to anonymize them, and asked to vote on a series of questions, each having the ability to drastically change the course of a random member of the public’s night. Prompts started off reasonably harmless, such as whether he should win a free pint or have a drink spilt on him, the group of course choosing the latter, but became increasingly more sinister. The veiled spectators happily voted for the unsuspecting victim to have his personal belongings destroyed, and to be framed for shoplifting and consequently arrested. They even continued to laugh along as they voted for him to be kidnapped by a group of thugs, until the true subjects of the experiment were revealed, the audience themselves.

The pressure to conform and go along with the intelligence of the crowd is a strong social influence. Sometimes, mirroring what others do can be beneficial. It is animal instinct is to move in groups – strength in numbers and all that. How else would our ancestors have been able to voyage great distances across seas and continents, if it wasn’t for collective crowd mentality?

On the other hand, herd mentality among those in positions of power, such as the police, has resulted in many unnecessarily lost lives. Conformity studies by Stanley Milgram in the 50s and 60s assigned the enabling of Nazi cruelty to willingness of German soldiers to obey, rather than to their true dispositions.

By Anna Alford: Culture Columnist

He maintained the idea that these behavioural choices were a direct result of the situation, and that any of us would have behaved identically if put in the same position.

Online you are in a group of millions, often with your identity protected. The mob effect on Twitter has led into cancel culture and online trolling is an issue across all social media platforms. Anonymity means considerable harassment can occur on these sites as the users see themselves as immune from repercussions.

When having an in-person conversation with someone, it is unlikely you go nuclear in response every time you disagree with them (even if their argument is stupid), unless you’re a sociopath. We don’t like hurting other people, so why is it that as soon as people are behind a keyboard and unable to see the direct effect of their words on the victim, they feel they can subject them to vile and abusive comments?

Even when you are not anonymous, guilt and responsibility can be dispersed fairly easily throughout a group, such is why people show willingness to be apart of demonstrations, riots and strikes.

The obstacle is remembering to evaluate your personal beliefs when they contradict those of others. Individuals often over-use social information, imitating others more than they should – this is part of the reason why conspiracy theories gain traction so quickly, even when they lack any real basis or truth. Conformity is a classic evolutionary conflict between personal and collective interest. Do you take the easy path that has already been paved for you? Or do you risk social rejection by attempting to create a new one?

Think to yourself, ‘am I too caught up in everything to think rationally?’, ‘can I think for myself right now, or am I just dismissing everything that doesn’t fit my narrative?’. Next time, it may benefit you to go against the status quo.