Saturday, November 29, 2008

They Killed Him and "Kept Shopping"

It was a 5:00 am sale on Black Friday at a Wall-Mart in Nassau County on Long Island. Thousands of eager shoppers were lined up outside. According to AP, when a store employee tried to open the doors and let them in, they broke through the doors, knocked him down, and trampled him to death. He was stepped on dozens of times.

The witnesses in this video seem to attribute this bizarre action to greed, but that can't be the whole explanation. People who kill for greed are criminals, and these people are not criminals.* Everyone who knows Gustave Le Bon's classic book, The Crowd will immediately think of another explanation. This is a classic case of crowd psychology. Le Bon says:
The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, ... the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. ... The psychological crowd is a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.
Le Bon held that people in crowds do things that they would never be capable of when acting alone. And he did not mean that in a nice way. "In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated."

The difference between crowd behavior and individual behavior is of course that in crowds individuals interact, resulting in a whole that is not a mere sum or average of parts. This interaction, he held, is conditioned three principal factors: people in crowds feel powerful and hence unconstrained, they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility, and this results in emotional contagion. Basically, they make each other stupid and drive each other mad.

I would add another factor, at least as obvious as these: the dissolution of responsibility. Individuals in crowds do not feel responsible for what they do, a factor that makes crowds a powerful conscience-solvent, a sort of moral sulfuric acid. When the horrified Wall-Mart management announced that they were closing the store for several hours, many of these shoppers, according to the AP story, "kept shopping." Some angrily complained, shouting that they had been waiting in line since Thanksgiving Day. It's pretty obvious that though they had just participated in a collective act of homicide, they did not feel that they had done anything.

Though people can act as groups they only seem to be able to think of themselves as individuals, so a mob is a way of doing something and yet not doing it.

It is mainly as individuals that human beings deserve our admirationg and respect. In crowds, decent human beings can transform into cowards, bullies, or mad psychopaths.
* Some academics have said, at least in sound bites given to the press, that the explanation is not merely greed, but fear, fear of missing out on bargains. This of course has the same problem as the greed explanation. Only a monster would kill or even seriously hurt someone out of fear of missing a great deal on a flat-screen TV.
Added Later: Reason Hit & Run reports on a New York Times editorial blaming this incident on Wall-Mart. It seems their sale drove the consumer mad with greed. Thus to the excessive individualism of the greed explanation they add the excessive socialism of ... oh God, I can't go on. It's too horrible.
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