The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.
The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.
When a crowd gathers near a suicidal jumper something terrible is unleashed.
In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.
Cases like this aren’t unusual.
In 2008, a 17-year old man jumped from the top of a parking garage in England after 300 or so people chanted for him to go for it. Some took photos and recorded video before, during and after. Afterward, the crowd dispersed, the strange spell broken. The taunters walked away wondering what came over them. The other onlookers vented their disgust into social media.
In San Francisco, in 2010, a man stepped onto the ledge of his apartment window and contemplated dropping from the building. A crowd gathered below and soon started yelling for him to jump. They even tweeted about it. He died on impact fifteen minutes later.
“i was there and im traumatized. the guys next to me were laughing telling him to jump and videotaping the whole thing. i’m still young and in high school and this is gunna stick with me for the rest of my life. there was a total lack of respect for the poor man and people were laughing when he jumped.”
- comment left at the SF Examiner
Police and firefighters are well aware of this tendency for crowds to gather and taunt, and this is why they tape off potential suicide scenes and get the crowd out of shouting distance. The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.