by Alana Duffy
We’ve all met someone who acts a certain way in everyday life, then seemingly becomes a completely different person when he or she enters a group setting. This switch can be a good thing or a bad thing, but either way, it’s due to a centuries-old phenomenon known as mob mentality. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the tendency for people's behaviour or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong,” mob mentality has been a prevalent part of human behaviour since people began to form tribes and migrate in groups.
The most obvious example is probably violent rioting in the name of nationalism, however, mob mentality exists in day-to-day life as well. Roasting someone’s post on Insta with your friends, singing and yelling at a hockey game, or smashing a beer bottle on University can all be attributed to mob mentality. Most people would never participate in these activities on their own, and may even disapprove of them. However, if we become part of a group that encourages such behaviour, it can change how we act.
Recently, scientists have been wondering more about the neurological aspect of mob mentality. Though there is no concrete evidence to date, it is suspected that mirror neurons may play a role. These are brain cells that fire when we watch someone perform an action and when we perform the same action, suggesting that some parts of our brain may be specialized for imitating others.
Let’s not forget to consider the role of our dear old friend dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for signalling in reward pathways. This chemical is released whenever we do something enjoyable such as have sex, take drugs, or even eat a really good pizza (shout-out to Maxx from Dominos). Dopamine encourages us to repeat actions that have been previously pleasurable and is strongly linked to the formation of addictive behaviours. Unsurprisingly, it has also been implicated in the ability to influence decision-making. Laboratory studies have revealed that changing one’s opinion due to social influence triggers a large dopamine release in the brain.
A study conducted at the University of Basel in Switzerland examined the relationship between dopamine levels and the likelihood that a person would change his or her answer after discovering that other participants held differing opinions. More specifically, they used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to reduce dopamine release in the medial-prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain produces an error signal when we make what is perceived as an incorrect decision. Following a decrease in dopamine in this area, subjects were 40% less likely to conform to the group by changing their opinions. On the flip side, researchers in Denmark gave participants a pill to increase the amount of dopamine in the brain and found that people changed their opinions much more readily to align with the majority.
Interestingly enough, our physical anatomy may also affect the likelihood of conforming to groups. A Japanese study found that a subject’s desire to be unique and have their own opinion was related to the size of their medial-prefrontal cortex (MPFC). The thinner their MPFCs were, the less likely they were to alter their opinions to fit the group majority. Further research is certainly required, but this is an intriguing result nonetheless. I wonder what would happen if we attempted to reproduce this experiment in self-proclaimed hipsters?
This leads us to the question of whether or not people can be held responsible for their actions when they’re in a large group. If an automatic neurobiological response is part of the reason why people change their behaviour, can they really be held 100% accountable? To me, the obvious answer is yes – they can and they should be. However, many people do not share this sentiment – how often have we heard “but everyone was doing it!” as an excuse for poor behaviour? This is known as diffusion of responsibility, where a person is less likely to take responsibility for his or her own action or inaction when others are present. This way of thinking holds no legal or moral merit; it is simply what we tell ourselves to feel better about something we know deep down to be wrong. So the next time you’re in a group that is acting like they were all raised by wild animals, take a moment to reflect on your behaviour as an individual, rather than one of many.