The idea of the immoral, zero-intelligence ‘mob’ is a very successful meme — longstanding, compact, adaptable. We’ve all heard it so often that it provides a ready, quick-access reference to explain behaviour, like riots or looting, we might otherwise find hard to interpret.
So a picture of ‘mob rule‘ has unsurprisingly dominated the lurid wire reports from Haiti in recent days. This is despite well-reported protestations that ‘there is no insecurity’, little looting and relative calm.
Readers hopefully remember the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when New Orleans was supposedly beset by looters and predatory rapists stalked the Louisiana Superdome, claims later revealed as exaggerated and often outright false. It turns out that social norms — a sense of fairness, and prohibitions on theft and violence — are very resilient, and can survive even ‘social breakdown’.
Aside from racist contempt for Haitian people, the law-of-the-jungle-style reporting rests on a proposition about human nature, well expressed by the New York Times: ‘Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down.’ This states that, in the absence of social controls (i.e. supervision and enforcement), people will revert to their supposed natural state: self-regarding, panicked and lawless.
Behind this lies a belief that we only do the right thing when someone else is looking. The anonymity of dense crowds, or state breakdown after natural disaster, allow the covert practice of antisocial behaviour to evade public detection and penalty (even if everyone can see you, they don’t know your identity). This favours the emergence of violence, theft and rape. Everyone for himself!
As mentioned here previously, this vision is a staple of disaster movies and anti-social-media denunciations. Conservatives have long used it to argue against popular democracy. Unfortunately their fantasy of a ‘mob’ of selfish individuals, unbound by social constraints, has been refuted by evidence. Multiple experiments show that, even under conditions of anonymity, individuals retain their preference for fairness when dealing with others. Studies in crowd behaviour during emergencies, such as the London bombings of July 2005 or the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989, show that people generally don’t behave selfishly or stampede towards the exit. Cooperative, sensible behaviour predominates.
So next time the TV news tells us that certain people have been reduced to an amoral state of all against all, we should probably be suspicious. It seems that people behave improbably well under trying conditions, because they internalise social norms rather than just using them instrumentally for their own benefit.
Look, even sleazy TV anchormen can do it!