In my column on the recent St. Patrick’s Day mayhem near Fanshawe College, I referred to the work of Vancouver forensic psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Zoffmann, who has studied mob behaviour. But in the column, I didn’t have much space to devote to Zoffmann’s theories.
In essence, Zoffmann says that when certain factors are present — including a lot of noise, alcohol, a “critical mass” of other people and something to focus on, such as pounding music or a bonfire — people tend to abandon their normal inhibitions.
“Those critical elements are things which overwhelm the forebrain — the seat of judgement — and get people to react more emotionally and instinctively,” says Zoffmann. “It’s not that the person who’s doing these actions is not aware that they’re doing them. It’s just that their judgement and control is impaired.”
She says this sort of “group brain” behaviour has been observed in mobs when rioters “react simultaneously like a bunch of wildebeests being startled on the veldt. Without any apparent communication between them, they do a 90-degree turn this way and then a 90-degree turn that way. You see this in human crowds.”
It’s similar, she says, to the way a flock of birds will suddenly turn together.
“In animals, the flocking behaviour confuses predators,” she says. “So maybe (in mobs) we’re seeing a vestigial holdover; we don’t need it anymore, but it’s still there, like an appendix.”