Herd Stupidity

 

A friend of mine was traveling in Europe some years ago, and a few feet away on a public sidewalk near a café, a large man started beating up a woman – quite possibly his girlfriend. He had her on the ground, and he was systematically whacking her head against the curb.

My friend looked around, and although people were watching, nobody was doing anything. So my friend, a tourist from Scotland, acted. Despite being physically small and relatively unimposing, he promptly put himself in the middle of the two people and stared the attacker down until he decided to walk away. (My friend was, quite understandably, terrified.) The woman needed – and received – medical attention.

What would you do in that situation? The answer may depend on how many people are around you.

We know from many studies that the chances of anyone intervening in such a circumstance depend a great deal on how many people are there. A person in a crowd thinks, “why me?” or otherwise rationalizes a wait-and-see posture – because, after all, there is an entire crowd of people there doing nothing, so they must have a good reason, right? Being around other people gives us an excuse for inaction (at best) or even outright collusion.

When you add a dollop of anger or fear to the crowd, then you get a mob, an entity that moves and swells and responds as a single organic entity, with virtually no individual thought or consideration. Indeed, the mob, once in motion, responds to what it sees – a pathway that, unlike words, can entirely bypass the thinking parts of the brain. There are no individuals – there are just bodies in motion, thoughtless herd or pack instincts. The mob surges toward things that are perceived as desirable, and shies away from perceived threats. In these actions, with little or no individual thought, the helpless and hapless can be trampled. I know of PTSD for people who knowingly and consciously killed in battle. I think people have a much easier time rationalizing or simply forgetting trampling other people in a mob.

History has no shortage of such mobs, both in physical space and in the modern witchhunts against whoever is out of favor on any given day. Mobs and the mob mentality exist in every society, and in every age. Being in a mob and acting as part of it may indeed be the best way to ensure survival. We saw plenty of this kind of instinctive thinking with the reaction to Covid. After all, there are probably no recriminations after the fact as long as you did what everyone else was already doing. (We are seeing this now with the most egregious actors telling us to “get over it”).

Indeed, we could argue that there is a rational safety in the mob, one that we inherit from the animal kingdom. There is safety in numbers.  All highly social animals (from schools of fish to sheep and cows to starlings and blackbirds) come together to form archetypal mobs, acting as a swarm instead of as individuals. And people are similarly social creatures, able to spread our basest emotions — fear, anger, bloodlust — like a contagious disease.

The earliest recorded mob that I am aware of is the children of Israel leaving Egypt. As Joseph Cox points out, they are described at the beginning of Exodus as being like swarms of insects, filling the land. And they are similarly described when they leave Egypt as being chamushim, fivers – like the swarms of unthinking animals created on the fifth day. A mob. Stimulus and response. Not a single person below Moses and Aharon is allotted even enough individuality to be named. Nobody stands out.

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

The people were a mass, an unthinking bulk of people who responded to basest fear using only instinct.

Even in their speech, the people acted as one, as a mob:

And they said to Moses, “… what have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?”

This is the herd mentality. Moses tried to defuse it:

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which G-d will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.”

But the people feared anyway. The Hebrew word for “fear” is the same one for “see.” Moses was telling the people to not trust their eyes. He wanted them to rise above the base animalistic stimulus-response cycle that drives masses of people. Our eyes can bypass higher-order cognition. We can – and do – react to visual stimuli without requiring any pathway through our thinking brains.

It is perhaps for this reason that the splitting of the sea and the people marching into the seabed happened at night – when vision is impaired, and confusion can be at its highest. G-d ordered the people into the water before nightfall, but nobody moved.

Instead of trusting their eyes (which bypass the need for words and thought), Moses was trying to get the people to stop acting like a mindless swarm. He wanted them to listen to him, to think. Animals cannot hear an argument, they cannot grasp abstract concepts. People can – but only if they want to. Only if they can overcome nature, and reject their instinct to follow the herd.

The people get there eventually – after Sinai they became increasingly capable of thinking for themselves and reject reflexively following the crowd (think of Pinchas’ solo action in front of everyone, or of the daughters of Tzelofchad arguing their legal claim with Moses). The Torah is unstinting with its praise for those who, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were willing and able to do what they thought was right, even though they were alone in the world.

The story of the Exodus should be a cautionary tale for all times. The mob usually gets its way in the moment. But in hindsight, we know that a thoughtless mass of angry or afraid people very rarely gets things right.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

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  1. Phil Turmel Inactive
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    iWe: we know that a thoughtless mass of angry or afraid people very rarely gets things right.

    Which makes me despise those who incite mob action.

    • #1
  2. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Is this an argument against high density living accommodations, i.e. city life?

    • #2
  3. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    Reminds me of a quote from a letter by a Texian, Mexican patriot that feared his native country of origin would never reach the freedom he hoped for it. “A compliant and fearful people can never know freedom”. Perhaps a divine wisdom knew that the compliance grown over generations of servitude had to be gradually worked away by the forced self-reliance of the desert?

    • #3
  4. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    Reminds me of a quote from a letter by a Texian, Mexican patriot that feared his native country of origin would never reach the freedom he hoped for it. “A compliant and fearful people can never know freedom”. Perhaps a divine wisdom knew that the compliance grown over generations of servitude had to be gradually worked away by the forced self-reliance of the desert?

    I like the idea. But I think we are not there yet. The Jewish people are far too prone to wallowing in victimhood, and have been for a very, very long time.

    I think the reaction to Covid proved how very far away we as a society are from resisting the influence of the herd.

    • #4
  5. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    iWe (View Comment):

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    Reminds me of a quote from a letter by a Texian, Mexican patriot that feared his native country of origin would never reach the freedom he hoped for it. “A compliant and fearful people can never know freedom”. Perhaps a divine wisdom knew that the compliance grown over generations of servitude had to be gradually worked away by the forced self-reliance of the desert?

    I like the idea. But I think we are not there yet. The Jewish people are far too prone to wallowing in victimhood, and have been for a very, very long time.

    I think the reaction to Covid proved how very far away we as a society are from resisting the influence of the herd.

    I am afraid I tend to agree. My disappointment in the general reaction to Covid left me wishing there were a lot more of those Americans who Edmund Burke told his fellow members of Parliament “sniff tyranny in every tained breeze”

    • #5
  6. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    The problem is there is a HUGE danger that the man beating the woman will divert his rage to anyone interfering.  It’s a very dangerous thing to intervene.  It’s quite easy to say, not my circus, not my monkeys, and that is a morally defensible choice.  Often the “victim” might also respond by attacking the rescuer, but that seems unlikely in the scenario presented.

    Legally, by the common law, there is no obligation to rescue.

    But the problem with all the analysis above is that if you don’t attempt to rescue a woman in such a situation, then you’re not much of a man.  

    • #6
  7. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Skyler (View Comment):
    The problem is there is a HUGE danger that the man beating the woman will divert his rage to anyone interfering.  It’s a very dangerous thing to intervene.  It’s quite easy to say, not my circus, not my monkeys, and that is a morally defensible choice.

    You have, in a nutshell, beautifully made the case that the “morality” of atheists, when push comes to shove, is nothing more than rationalized self-interest.

    • #7
  8. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    iWe (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    The problem is there is a HUGE danger that the man beating the woman will divert his rage to anyone interfering. It’s a very dangerous thing to intervene. It’s quite easy to say, not my circus, not my monkeys, and that is a morally defensible choice.

    You have, in a nutshell, beautifully made the case that the “morality” of atheists, when push comes to shove, is nothing more than rationalized self-interest.

    Did you read what I wrote?  Do you even understand what morality is?  Did you see my conclusion?  Do you think a 115 pound woman with an infant in her arms is morally obligated to intervene when a 250 pound man is beating someone to a pulp?  The equation is going to be different depending on the particular details.

    I’ll put my morals over yours any day.  Your morals include believing in magic.

    • #8
  9. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Skyler (View Comment):
     Your morals include believing in magic.

    My morals believe there is something greater than myself. 

    • #9
  10. Phil Turmel Inactive
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’ll put my morals over yours any day.

    But no one else will, except other pagans.

    • #10
  11. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’ll put my morals over yours any day.

    But no one else will, except other pagans.

    Pagan?  Sheesh.

    • #11
  12. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    iWe (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Your morals include believing in magic.

    My morals believe there is something greater than myself.

    Exactly.  Using your mind to believe something exists that doesn’t exist is immoral.

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Skyler (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    Your morals include believing in magic.

    My morals believe there is something greater than myself.

    Exactly. Using your mind to believe something exists that doesn’t exist is immoral.

    Does abstraction exist?

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’ll put my morals over yours any day.

    But no one else will, except other pagans.

    Only the trusting ones.

    Remember what happened to Madalyn Murray O’Hair?

    • #14
  15. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Percival (View Comment):

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I’ll put my morals over yours any day.

    But no one else will, except other pagans.

    Only the trusting ones.

    Remember what happened to Madalyn Murray O’Hair?

    My girl friend years ago was to be a witness in that trial when she was murdered.  She was the last known person to see Murray alive at the veterinarian clinic she worked at.  Murray was picking up a pet, if I’m not mistaken.

     

    • #15
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