Group display in humans has been studied by a variety of psychologists both classic and contemporary. Psychologists such as Le Bon believe that crowd behaviour is explained through the individual taking on the ‘psychology’ of the crowd’. Essentially, the actions of a crowd can be explained through situational factors, such as convergence in one location, or the result of normless situations where people look to others to see how to act when norms of behaviour are unavailable.
In both sports crowds and lynch mobs, the ‘psychology’ of the groups seems to ensure that the action is carried out with great emotion and loyalty to a cause. For example, in the last decades of the nineteenths century lynching of black people in the Southern states of USA was at an all-time high. Lynching became an institutional method used by white people to terrorise black people to maintain white supremacy. Therefore, it is clear that lynching was carried out as a result of loyalty to a cause and great emotion.
This is supported by Blalock’s (1967) power-threat hypothesis which suggests that groups that pose a threat to the majority are more likely to be discriminated against and to be the subject of violent action. Lynching was an extreme form of discrimination, motivated by perceived racial threat. Similarly, Patterson (1999) claims that lynch mobs were more active during the 19th century because it was a time of major social transition, following the collapse of slavery, where the entire community felt at risk.
When groups feel at risk, it becomes evolutionarily advantageous to put survival first, and as Ridley (1997) shows that cooperative group defence and antagonism to outsiders go hand in hand. This explains why, when a majority group is more at risk, individual self-interest gives way to ‘group mentality’. Therefore, acts of group display such as lynching are suggested to be the result of threat or feeling at risk, which in turn promotes aggressive reactions to ensure survival. Alternatively, lynch mobs could be better explained through deindividuation.
Mullen (1986) carried out an archival analysis to determine whether the atrocities committed by lynch mobs could be accounted for in terms of self-attention processes. It was found that, as the lynch mob grew in size; the lynchers became less self-attentive, therefore, more deindividuated. This led to a breakdown in normal self-regulation processes, which in turn led to an increase in the level of atrocities committed against the victim. Therefore, it could simply be the lack of self-evaluation that led to the ease in which people went lynch mobbing rather than the threat black people posed.
Furthermore, Wilson (1975) claims that xenophobia has been documented in ‘virtually every group of animals displaying higher forms of social organisation’. Natural selection, it appears, has favoured those genes that caused humans to be altruistic toward members of their own group but intolerant toward outsiders. Shaw and Wong (1989) argue that mechanisms that prompt suspicion towards strangers would have been favoured by natural selection. To support the link between xenophobia and violent displays, Foldesi (1996) investigated Hungarian football crowds.
He found that the racist conduct of a core of extremist supporters led to an increase of spectators’ violence in general, and xenophobic outbursts in particular. Violent incidents based in racist or xenophobic outbursts in particular. Violent incident based on racist or xenophobic attitudes were observed at all stadiums, with gypsies, Jews and Russians the usual targets. Alternatively, Marsh (1978) suggests that much of what passes for violent behaviour is actually highly ordered and ritualised. Being a football hooligan enables young males to achieve a sense of personal worth and identity in the eyes of their peers.
Group displays of aggression, therefore, are not, according to Marsh, an indication of underlying xenophobic tendencies, but part of an alternative ‘career structure’ for working class males. Ultimately, xenophobia from an evolutionary perspective is adaptive to exaggerate negative stereotypes about outsiders and therefore, protects from potential harm. However, to state that natural selection has predisposed us with xenophobic genes and that is the reason why xenophobia exists increases the determinism of the evolutionary approach as well as removing the free will of an individual to react with xenophobic tendencies or not.
It is also socially sensitive to say so, as it can act as a potential excuse for aggressive behaviour and removes responsibility from the transgressor. Although large groups of people often create the very situational variables needed for aggressive behaviour, this is not always the case. Cassidy et al. (2007) investigated the Mela – a month-long Hindu celebration that takes place in India. It is said to be the largest gathering of people on earth – in 2007, over 50 million people attended it.
This provides psychologists with an interesting crowd situation that is not characterised by aggression. The research discovered that during the Mela, the crows behaved well and increased generosity, support and orderly behaviour was noted. Mela shows how crowd behaviour and collective living can promote good, non-aggressive behaviour where a strong sense of common identity, loyalty to a cause and great emotion is beneficial instead of being the causal factors for subsequent harm.
Therefore, crowds need not always lead to the occurrence of aggressive behaviour. However, it is ethnocentric to state that a Mela conducted in the West would go in the exact same, non-aggressive way as it is religiously relevant and specific to Indian culture only but it does bring forward the individual differences that will be present in large-scale group displays. Not all individuals will behave in an aggressive manner and it is difficult to argue that if they do, it is always because it is evolutionarily advantageous to them.