Herd Mentality and What It Means For You In The Field

July 10, 2017

Herd Mentality and What It Means For You In The Field

by Ian D Scofield

Today we are going to talk about herd mentality and what it means to you as a police officer.  Any officer who has been involved in an incident with a large number of people has probably noticed herd mentality in action.  For those who have yet to encounter this kind of incident, herd mentality is the term applied to a behavior that is adopted by a crowd.  Let's take a deeper look.

Humans, when in a group, tend to adopt behaviors of the group.  This is seen throughout history and today's society.  The ideas of a group become popular belief.  Many experts believe that parts of our culture today, such as home decor and fashion are herd mentality.

Other terms for herd mentality include:

  • Pack Mentality
  • Mob Mentality
  • Crowd Mentality
  • Herd Instinct
  • Pack Behavior

As law enforcement officers, you probably aren't as interested in herd mentality in terms of trends like home decor or fashion.  Where it is of concern to you, tends to be times when it becomes harmful.

In recent years, we have seen a growing number of protests around the country.  From political to social reasons, these protests have launched in many states.  A large number of these protests have turned violent because of a small group of people.

Often times people start throwing stuff from the crowd just to start problems.  Other times they break store windows or car windows.

The exact reasons for herd mentality vary but they are all similar.  The biggest reason that a lot of people follow the group is because they believe it is what they are supposed to be doing.  If the group does it, it is okay.

There is also a vainer side to most people that want to be accepted by the group.  If they don't do what the group does, they will be shunned.  For many people, this can be a big influencer.  Being ostracized from groups is secretly a lot of people's fear, even if it isn't one they are conscious of having until it happens.

Within a large group, people feel as if they are only a small grain among a whole bag of rice.  Such a feeling establishes in them a sense of anonymity and that sense empowers them to be bolder than they normally wood.  This is a normal feeling in a crowd but during a protest can translate to a dangerous one.

In the case of riots, some people participate out of a fear of being injured or killed.  They believe that if they don't participate the group will label them an enemy and also attack them.  In an intense riot, this is a valid concern.  People have been targeted by mobs before for not falling in step.

If a group shares a sense of solidarity it raises the possibility of herd mentality.  This is part of the reasons that prison rights are so easy to start.  Everyone shares a scheduled regime, the same clothes, the inability to leave, and a similar goal.  

Based upon research conducted by scientists, it was found that only 5% of a crowd is needed to change the whole crowd's action. In their case, they were only dealing with the direction of the crowd but evidence shows that part of our baser instincts is to follow the crowd.  This includes into violence.

During the study one or two students from a large group were told which direction to walk down the hallways.  The rest were not given any directions but to walk down the hallways.  All were instructed to not to talk.

Everyone ended up following the people with directions.  It only took a matter of time before the whole group started to follow them.

What does this mean for you as a police officer (or other LEO)?

The obvious answer is that any crowd can become violent.  It is easy for a peaceful crowd to start lashing out and hurting people simply because the 5% starts to perform these actions.  When in a crowd, no matter how peaceful they are at the start, make sure to have an escape plan and a plan of action should things take a turn for the worst.

Traffic is another good example of how herd mentality affects law enforcement.  If you are flagging and one person goes against your directions, more people are likely to do the same.  It is justified to the others that if one person can get away with it, they all can.

There is a less thought about area where herd mentality affects LEOs and it is partially because we don’t want to think about it.  When it groups of large amounts of officers and one officer does something, the rest are likely to follow suit.  We have seen this in several use of force situations.  However, this is a very small amount of the time, training and a good moral compass helps to direct officers in the right direction.  As much as officers would like to deny it, they aren’t immune to basic parts of our psychology.

On a last note, I am sorry to all of the readers for not getting a second post out last week.  In recognition of that, I am going to post three articles this week and they will all be on the topic of herd mentality.  On Wednesday, we will take a look at real life examples of herd mentality.  Remember, stay safe out there.

 About the author:

Ian graduated Seattle University with a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice with a Specialization in Administration of Justice. He has held positions as an Auxiliary Public Safety Officer, a Security Patrol Supervisor, and as an in-house security officer for a major medical center. Through all of this he has picked up a wealth of experience, training, and education that he is happy to pass on to others. Ian can be reached at ian@iandscofield.com.

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