Excerpt: Herd mentality and Othering

Picture a football game: the crowd on one side of the stadium cheers as its team scores, and groans as it is pushed back. The fans in the opposite stands reciprocate with their own boos and cheers. The synchrony on each side gives the impression of an indivisible unit, like members of a chorus, controlled by the same script. The warmth and empathy of the members of the crowd for each other and their disdain, even hostility, for the other side are striking. The polarized thinking of a team on the field and of their supporters in the stands has much in common with the more extreme thinking involved in prejudice, race riots, and persecution.

Now imagine a parade of jackbooted storm troopers goose-stepping in unison with the rousing music of a military band to the cheers of adoring crowds. This scene resembles the spectacle of the uniformed football players and their cheering partisans at the stadium. The enthusiasm of the supporters generates contagious fervor, exalting their champions (and by association, themselves) and denigrating the opposition.
The hostility in the sports arena is generally contained and time-limited, while military ferocity can be extensive and all-consuming—yet the dichotomy between “us” and “them” exists in both arenas. In fact, the line between sports competition and violent attacks on the adversary is not infrequently crossed. Witness the “soccer wars“: rampaging fans of the losing team assault the supporters of the winners and even the members of their own team by whom they feel betrayed.


The most notorious of the sports wars occurred in Constantinople in the sixth century A.D. The Hippodrome in that city was the scene of the competition between rival chariots, distinguished by the green or light blue colors of their drivers’ liveries. The city was divided into two factions, green and blue. Catalyzed by an admixture of religion and politics, the chariot races exploded into riots and later massacres. A fight between the greens and blues in the Hippodrome in 532 A.D. escalated into a war between rival factions and culminated in the burning of much of the city and, ultimately, the massacre of thousands of greens.
The thinking, feeling, and behavior of a person in a group can be only partially explained in terms of how that person might interact with another individual. Although dualistic thinking and bias occur in both individual and group interactions, certain phenomena such as camaraderie, commitment to a leader or cause, and collective illusions need to be understood in the context of the group. “Groupism” is the collective counterpart of egoism. The person in the group transfers his own self-centered perspective to a group-centered frame of reference. He interprets events in terms of the group’s interests and beliefs. Ordinary selfishness is converted into “groupishness.” He not only subordinates his personal interests to those of the group but opposes the interests of outgroup members unless they are compatible with the interests of his group.

The group-centered member may promote the enhancement of the image of his comrades (and consequently himself) and the demeaning of outsiders. Confrontations with other groups accentuate the positive bias toward his own group and the negative bias toward the adversarial group. There is a reciprocal relationship between his evaluation of the ingroup members versus the outgroup members. The more he perceives opposition from the outsider group, the more he elevates his own. His fellows become more worthy, noble, and moral as the others become increasingly unworthy, ignoble, and immoral.
Much group behavior rests on the communication, often subtle, of beliefs, images, and interpretations across the group. Group members are tuned in to special meanings assigned to events affecting the group, and they readily accept opinions and policies advocated by the leader. Despite their extremeness, these beliefs are relatively plastic (in contrast to those of psychiatric patients). Beliefs in which they have a strong investment can be reversed on signals from the group leader. For example, Hitler could call for the destruction of the Soviet Union amid roars of approval in one speech, and at a later date arouse enthusiastic cheers for his announcement of a non-aggression pact with the same country. The multiple interactions among his followers served to sway mass opinion in the chosen direction. And the same group contagion spread when he reversed himself again and marched against the Soviet Union.

The tendency of people to adjust their report of their perceptions to conform to the evaluations of other group members has been demonstrated in experiments by Solomon Asch. He showed that experimental subjects would change their stated observations of a stimulus under the influence of other people. The subject would assume, for example, that her initial pin-pointing of an object in space was wrong and change her judgment to conform to the judgment of the others. Such collective thinking, often leading to clear cognitive distortions, helps to bind a group together.

This cohesiveness, in turn, induces members to submerge their own thinking into a collective mentality. The unanimity of opinions and the resulting gratification from sharing goals with their comrades accentuates their commitment to the group. The sacrifices they make and the risks they take for other group members further intensify their commitment and cohesion. This allegiance facilitates their willingness, even eagerness, to abandon the usual ethical and moral norms, even to the point of participating in torture and wanton killing.

The biases leading to cognitive distortions such as arbitrary inference and overgeneralization are similar whether a person is engaged in conflict with another individual or with a member of another group. The passionate hatred of a husband and wife toward each other during a turbulent divorce action is based on some of the same psychological processes as the rage of uniformed thugs pillaging the homes and stores of a defenseless minority. In group actions, however, people are moved by the collective biases and the “contagious” sweep of feelings. An individual substitutes his group’s values and restrictions for his own as the group establishes boundaries between “us” and “them.”

A fire in a theater, the loss of a football game, or the news of a military victory —each concentrates people’s attention on a theme, whether danger, defeat, or victory. The shared meaning of the event leads to shared feelings —panic, distress, or euphoria—and incites the same type of behavior—stampede, riot, celebration. Rioters in a lynch mob or a pogrom are driven by the same kind of diabolical image of their innocent victims; victorious celebrants are elevated by the same glorious image of their group or nation. The meshing of the individual’s beliefs with those of the group energizes ethnic conflict and acts of prejudice, persecution, and war. The subordination of personal interests to those of the group is played out in self-sacrifice and most dramatically in suicide bombings.

The individual’s yearning for personal success, combined with his or her hunger for attachment and bonding, is satisfied by identification with the success and intimacy of a dedicated group. The psychological mechanism that produces the subjective feeling of pleasure following a personal achieve-ment also operates in a group triumph. But group allegiances bring rewards beyond those of exclusively personal experiences. Since members of a group interact, their joy in victory is ampli-fied as it reverberates across the group.

Beck, Aaron T. “Collective Illusions Group Prejudice and Violence.” Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 217-23.

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