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From birds to fans … collective behaviour

We are often in awe of the harmonious flow of a flock of birds or a school of fish. How can these organisms move so quickly without bumping into each other? These unified movements, often signaled by one of the animals, suggest the existence of a collective animal behaviour. This phenomenon, called group mind or group mentality, may help explain collective human behavior such as that recently seen during the Stanley Cup 7th game riots.

Jung offered the concept of ‘participation mystique,’ a term originated by anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl, to explain a person’s unconscious identification and strong bonding with other people. This compelling identification occurs when there is little ego development and results in the person unable to clearly distinguish himself from the person he is identifying with. Participation mystique occurs in the infant mind in which a blurred boundary exists between internal and external worlds. The child truly does not feel a separateness from parents and thus, has little autonomy or self-governance.

Ideally, as ego-developed adults, we have separated from parental, peer and societal identification and act according to our own internal beliefs. However, as seen in mob rioting incidents, people often do not act from this self-governed state. During these times, individual consciousness and responsibility are temporarily obscured by identification with a collective force.

But what exactly is the force being identified with during rioting behaviour? Jung explained that when qualities are repressed into the shadow they gain strength (what we resist persists!). When viewing others with this trait, a person unconsciously identifies or resonates with this quality, often becoming overwhelmed with the repressed, built-up and often immature energy which surfaces.

During mob behaviour, we witness apparently harmless people behaving in angry, destructive and often immoral ways. Jung stated, “It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.” However, is mob or group behaviour always about repressed anger?

It is difficult to argue that repressed anger and frustration due to racial injustices were not a key cause of the 1992 L.A. riots. However, the first outbursts of anger occurred in some of the most stable, middle-class black neighborhoods. Further studies showed that the looters were multi-racial suggesting personal repressed anger not directly related to the King case. People resonated with the emotion rather than the cause.

With regards to the recent Vancouver riots, Bill Buford, author of the book, Among the Thugs, concluded that rioters were excited, having fun and perhaps were addicted to the thrill of violence. Similarly, U.B.C. sociologist Rima Wilkes stated, “They weren’t even angry. They were having fun.” She unknowingly explained Jung’s participation mystique when further stating, “People get caught up in the moment, and in the crowd mentality, and they think this is acceptable behaviour.”

As observers we may be quick to judge the behaviour of rioters, however, it can be an opportunity for self-reflection. What repressed qualities were stirred in you as you witnessed the rioters? Envy? Anger? Excitement?

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.