How Expressive Mob Behavior Transforms Into Aggressive Mob Behavior

The word mob has a naturally negative connotation to it, but psychologically speaking not all mobs are aggressive nor is the mass behavior exhibited by mob members always equitable in terms of lapse of reasoning and cognitive functioning and anti-intellectual behavior. A mob generally is defined as a collective in which behavior is demonstrably conformist and expressing of a unanimity of thought and action as well as emotion. Mob behavior has been broken down into three distinct groups: aggressive, acquisitive and expressive. The aggressive mob is represented by rioting and violence. The acquisitive mob is characterized by a fearful reaction against negation such as that experienced by Hurricane Katrina victims breaking into grocery stores to get food. The final type of mob is, generally speaking, the least prone to violence and heightened irrational behavior.

An expressive mob typically is characterized by a collective engagement in the release of psychological tension or as an escape against the numbing inertia of everyday stress and pressure. Expressive mob behavior therefore can be represented along a spectrum that ranges from sexual orgies to gathering together in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop. Venues for expressive mob gathering also span a considerable gamut: from the neighborhood bar to the football stadium. In fact, lacking the kind of organized and regular demonstration of social activism that takes complaints to the streets that is often an almost daily part of political process in other countries, expressive mob behavior in America is most often restricted to attendance at activities taking place within large sporting venues like arenas and stadiums.

Generally speaking, a mob at a sporting even tends to be defined in the extreme. Examples include college students erupting onto the field to celebrate an upset victory over a more powerful team or when a city’s residents take to the streets to engage in senseless violence as a means of celebrating their team’s victory in the World Series or Super Bowl. Psychologically speaking, however, any congregation inside a stadium or arena can be defined as an example of an expressive mob. The key components that serve to identify the collective audience at a sporting event as an expressive mob are the twin concepts of universality and anonymity that are at play.

The universality of the expressive mob in the example of a sporting event is the collective identification with the team and its athletes. The anonymity component is expressed in the methodology of individuals tying their own self-esteem or sense of happiness to the performance of their favorite team. When the athletes on the field or court do well, the members of the crowd consider the achievement in terms of the collective identified with the individual: “we just scored” or “we intercepted the ball” or “we just got a penalty and now we’ll have to punt.” The line between participation and spectating blurs and even disappears entirely.

Irrationality in the example of an expressive mob mentality can vary widely. The most common and least problematic example is the irrational belief by the spectator that they are actually part of the team. As this irrational thought takes hold and is exacerbated by a solidifying at the emotional attachment, the potential for the violence more often experienced by members of an aggressive mob or acquisitive mob can increase. Two examples are most often realized. In one instance, violence can stem from an irrational connection between fan and team when an umpire or referee makes a judgment against the fan’s team that the fan considers unfair or mistaken.

The violence can result as a reaction of either an actual oversight of fairness made as a result of a mistake by the referee or as a deeply irrational reaction to the official’s call even when the call was valid. This member of the expressive mob then transforms into an individual who goes beyond the collective by exhibiting either the tendency toward violence or actually engaging in violence. This individual action can potentially have the result of transforming a smaller group within the expressive mob into an example of a an aggressive mob and if, enough participants in the expressive mob from relatively controlled and moderated release of psychological tensions toward specifically targeted emotional displays directed in a one-side assault against the official, he can become the singular trigger capable of creating a comprehensive reconfiguration of what was once an example of an expressive mob into what becomes an example of an aggressive mob.

Another method by which expressive mob behavior can be transformed into aggressive mob behavior is when the universal collective identification with a team comes into conflict with those exhibiting a universal collective identification with the opposing team. In other words when the collective that identifies itself with one team becomes a single entity placed in conflict with the single entity constructed of individuals who identify themselves with the other team. In this example, an expressive mob can erupt into an aggressive mob directly as a result of a breakdown in the entire point of the enterprise of team spectator sports. Identification by fans with the brutally engaged athletes on the field is utilized for the purpose of sublimating aggressive tendencies or, as it is more commonly known, civilizing people. Somewhat analogous to the fact that your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure can all raise to levels that indicate actual physical engagement with the activities taking place within a dream while you sleep, the emotional attachment to the activity on the field in which the fan is not actually physically taking part can replicate all the physiological manifestations exhibited by those who are taking part. That distance between actual participant and mere spectator is the agency of anesthetizing mass aggression into a more civilized expression that is more easily managed and controlled. When that tenuous grip of civilization breaks apart between fans in support of different teams, it is often the spark that urges movement from expressive mob behavior to aggressive mob behavior.

Sporting events are certainly not the only example of expressive mob behavior in American society. An example that may seem completely opposition to the sporting event example is religious ritual. Any kind of church service is a clear example of expressive mob mentality, but the most representative example of the fervor that is part and parcel of the sporting event is the fundamentalist Christian faith healing. Whether in a revival tent on the outskirts of a small southern town or on a televised show watched by millions, this example of expressive mob congregation provides a profound insight into the way mob psychology works.

The religious fervor of the faith healer is constructed upon the concept of universal identification. The addition of an equally powerful concept is also vital to the continuing success of this type of psychodrama and that is the power of emotional contagion. The healing of one member of the audience and the overly melodramatic performance of the evangelist more often than not results in a contagious spread of hysteria that results in more “miracle cures” taking place and more members of the congregation coming forward. Other members rise to their feet to clap in time with the increasing volume of the musical accompaniment. The behavior of the evangelist also dials up the emotional volume as he start screaming out his commands for the faithful to believe and to be healed. At some point, this type of expressive mob then transform into a version of the acquisitive mob.

The key element in this transformation is the realization of an impression of universality by the crow. What this means is that the members of the congregation have now accepted the validity of the power of the preacher and this results in widespread belief that everyone else is a believer. One individual after another rushes toward the stage to either be converted on the spot or to be healed. Only rarely does this example of expressive mob mentality turn into aggressive mob mentality. It usually takes clear and unquestioned proof of being duped by a fake before aggression replaces acquisition.