What is that spell under which a group of people can so easily fall together? Why are we emboldened to do things in groups that we wouldn’t think of doing on our own?
Are there specific aspects of our personalities, biology or hormone levels that determine how we’ll act in specific types of social situations, or can anyone lose control and behave horribly given the right circumstances?
Those were some of the questions moving up to the front of my mind this past week as I read about the soccer match gone awry at the Corregidora stadium in Querétaro.
If you’ve taken any social science 101 classes, then you probably have at least a passing knowledge of the more famous experiments done on group behavior and conformity. The most famous of these is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a psychology professor created a mock prison in the basement of a university building and assigned students to play either prisoners or guards. Both groups fell so easily into such extreme versions of their roles that the study was called off after only six days.
Another you’ve likely heard of is the Milgram Experiment, in which ordinary people were asked to “punish” learners on another side of a wall for any wrong answers what they were told were electrical shocks of increasing voltage. In response, actors on the other side of the wall (who were in on the experiment) reacted to the supposed shocks with convincing sounds of pain and eventually requests or pleas to end the experiment and finally, complete silence.
Milgram was surprised at the results: 65% of those doling out the “shocks” went on with the experiment to the final “maximum level” — a supposed massive 450 volts of electricity. Even those who eventually refused to carry on were still willing to dole out up to 300 volts before they stopped.
There was also the Asch Conformity Experiment, where a group of people (again, in on the experiment) each gave indisputably wrong answers to questions posed to the group. In many cases, the one true subject in the room repeated the same wrong answers just to avoid the discomfort of distinguishing themselves from even an informal group of people they didn’t know or care about.
Many of these types of experiments took place in the decades after the Holocaust as social scientists sought to understand how “ordinary people” were capable of doing awful things to others.
The incident at the stadium isn’t, of course, a perfect parallel to any of these studies. And all of them have been variously questioned or criticized. And yet, they can all tell us something about behavior within a group. They all show us how, when given a role, we play them as expected. Costumes and props get us even further into the roles, rendering us so much more predictable than we’d like to believe.
This is why the enthusiasm surrounding sporting competitions has always made me nervous.
I don’t want to “play” that I have enemies; that’s scary and not fun, and I’ve got enough people that will genuinely hate on me (just look at my articles’ comment sections!) — no need to pretend! I’m covered, thanks. Wide-scale excitement – positive or negative – has always put me on edge.
Once a bunch of individuals becomes a crowd, the sense in me that says it’s game over for anyone to feel individual responsibility for their actions makes me want to run and hide until the group has dispersed. At worst, I feel raw fear. At best (say, at a nice, chill concert or a peaceful protest), I feel overwhelmed by the mass of people with a common purpose and try to hide my uncontrollable crying.
There’s a lesser-known experiment – the Bobo Doll – that gives us some additional things to think about as we go through our customary soul-searching in the wake of a tragic group event.
In it, 72 children were divided into three groups. One group watched adults behaving aggressively toward a doll, another watched adults playing calmly with it and the third group didn’t observe anything. All the children were allowed to play (individually) with the doll soon afterward.
The children who’d watched aggressive behavior toward the doll were more likely to play with it aggressively, especially if the model was male. The male children in that group displayed more copycat aggression toward the doll than the female children.
As the women who spent today marching will tell you (I’m writing this on March 8), there are enough men out there who seem to downright relish violent behavior and aggression (yeah, yeah, yeah, hashtag obviously #not_all_men for the immediate detractors who would possibly like to fight me on this, which is its own fountain of irony). But if you, like me, have stared in horror at the videos from the game, you’ve surely noticed that the women in them are running, not fighting.
After these kinds of things happen, someone inevitably comes out to give some sort of “This is not who we are!” message. I’m sad to say, my friends, that this is exactly who we are.
We’re animals. Not only that, we’re social animals, able to rile each other up pretty easily. In certain circumstances, this might be helpful. In most of our modern circumstances, it’s definitely not.
We’re not far-removed evolutionarily from primates who would happily bite our fingers off if locked in a room with us. The more clarity with which we recognize that, the better. But, instead we keep fooling ourselves back into thinking that we can be trusted.
And this, in a nutshell, is why the rule of law is so important. While the lack of a significant security presence at that game is not ultimately to blame, it was extremely naïve to think that it wasn’t needed.
Let’s not make that mistake again. Chimpanzees — all of us.
Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.