When We Surrender Our Hearts and Minds to the Crowd
The internet has added a new dimension to an old phenomenon: your experiences in a fired-up crowd can be far more moving than when you are alone. So, crowd-sourcing for social, political and sometimes military purposes has become something of a trend; and social media has facilitated these movements by creating on-line communities for change. These normally arise out of instances of perceived injustice in society. Examples of concerns (and movements) are: racism (#BlackLivesMatter); sexual misconduct (#MeToo); gun rights (The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence; the NRA); disenfranchisement (Arab Spring, now inactive); Western values (ISIS); and abortion (Free Choice; Right to Life). There are many more from all sides of the [political spectrum, too numerous to name, some of which will offend you. Election campaigns for political candidates are additional examples. All these movements have relied heavily on social media to help assemble the crowd. But the identification with a community comes even before the crowd gathers. The seeds are sown on line.
Why is it easy for these disparate groups to source so many willing recruits for their cause? Why are supporters prepared to give up the comforts of home to go out and protest in the streets, in the pouring rain, with a sense of outrage? The answer lies deep within our human psyche, and its origin lies way back in our human past.
To find the answer, we need to first focus on the human brain, because all behavior starts there. The brain controls the perceptions, memories, emotions, thoughts and actions of the individual. But what about the behavior of the crowd? We know what is going on in our own heads, but we have no direct neural connection with others within the crowd. All we can do is observe how they appear, what they do and what they say. How is it then that a crowd of our peers can have such a mysterious emotional pull upon us, as though we were plugged-in to it? There are many familiar examples of this: the singing in unison of the national anthem, especially at a time of crisis, or of hymns in a church congregation; and the much richer emotional experience in watching the home team score a touchdown from the vantage point of a packed stadium, even from a distance, rather than from close-up at home alone on TV. Where does this group consciousness come from? It seems visceral as well as cerebral. So, it must come from our shared DNA; the way we evolved.
Arguably, humans came to outlast hominid rivals, such as their Neanderthal cousins, over the past 200,000 years by using foresight and teamwork in hunting, defending, hoarding and sharing food and building shelter. Co-operation within the group was crucial, and early humans refined this with the help of their large brains. To achieve this level of co-operation, evolution equipped individuals with a need to belong to a group with shared values and goals. Satisfaction of this need produced a pleasurable experience just like eating a meal sates the hunger and drinking water quenches the thirst. However, this is not a shallow sensual pleasure like eating chocolate. Rather it is a deep sense of fulfilment when you think you are doing the right thing. This is so strong that it offsets any risks, costs and even pain from doing the crowd’s bidding. How did this state of affairs come about? One theory is that some early humans were born with this need by chance. They would have been likely part of a team, thereby enhancing their own survival and reproductive success. So, this need may have been naturally selected to be passed on to the next generation through the genes.
Certain cultural memes that arose in our distant ancestors have reinforced what nature has provided: dancing or marching together to the beat of a drum, singing in unison, and taking part in (religious) ceremonies and rituals all gave pleasure through satisfying the need to belong. In the process they cemented bonds among the group. Expressing righteous outrage in a rally with like-minded followers is the modern equivalent of ancient rituals. This is not to deny that there are now higher moral motivations also at play, such as the need to achieve justice and fairness in society. Indeed this is so. In fact, most participants would give these as the reasons why they joined a crowd. Inspired thus, a crowd is then powered, deep down, by the need to belong in every one of its members. This phenomenon has played a key role in the success of humankind.
Other theories have been proposed to explain why people are drawn to join crowds and adopt their values and goals. Such reasons include disillusionment with one’s own life and uncertainty about one’s own values and goals. These concerns supposedly lead the individual to seek safety in numbers and the greater certainty from adopting the shared values and goals of the crowd. This can lead to the individual performing acts that he or she would never have countenanced on their own. If this negative view is correct, it reflects rather poorly on the dignity and integrity of the individual human condition.
Of course a crowd could be formed for perfectly rational (rather than emotional) reasons, especially on the part of the organizers. Frustration at inaction by the authorities on a particular issue may lead to the raising of a crowd of a large number of angry protestors, this being the only language politicians understand. However, it is the emotional commitment of the members of the crowd which binds them together and makes it so effective.
Another theory comes from religion. Psychologists claim that the religious and spiritual urge comes from a desire to move beyond the limited bounds of the self to become part of something larger, whatever that may be, and to believe in it. This may explain the attraction of individuals to group causes, even for non-religious persons. I leave it up to you, the reader, to decide which explanation best fits with your own experience and outlook; but I tend to credit the success of crowd-sourcing to the existence of a deeply-felt need to belong. All the better if the crowd reinforces your existing values.
As with other human drives the need to belong can be turned to evil as well as good. We must be vigilant for demagogues who might woo the crowds to achieve their own aggrandizement. There is less risk of this happening in most modern crowd-sourcing on social media because of the open participatory nature of these movements. However, there have been exceptions, where tech-savvy recruiters for terrorist organizations have used social media and the dark web to radicalize and recruit vulnerable young people. The most terrifying example of crowd manipulation was provided by Adolph Hitler during the Third Reich in Germany in the 1930’s and early to mid 1940’s. Through fiery oratory he was able to persuade a whole nation, practically, of the need to belong to his Nazi party, to fight and die for it, and identify with its warped dream of world conquest and ethnic cleansing. However, this is unlikely to happen in an open pluralistic and democratic society, possessing checks and balances and an inviolate constitution, where everyone has access to a free internet.
Like it or not, these crowd-sourcing movements on the internet are here to stay, and they are changing the social and political landscape. Arguably, they are being powered by an ancient human need to belong, harnessed by social media.