Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

i know I am in the right profession because…

June 22nd, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I, like everyone else, have been watching the Vancouver riots and the ensuing aftermath with jaw dropping awe.  I am stunned by the images of young people setting police cars on fire, breaking windows, hitting each other – it is just incredible.  But when I look through the photos my primary thoughts are not around the injustice or the sadness of the acts (even though they probably should be), my thoughts sound a little more like this:  “Man, this would make a great study of the behaviour of groups” or “Whoa, I am going to be using this stuff as examples to teach group polarization.”  So yes, I am in the correct profession.  And here’s why this is such a fascinating case study. 

Of course no one could have predicted what would follow Vancouver’s loss in the Stanley Cup Final, but there are a number of groups researchers out there who are not surprised.  Unfortunately, quite often, groups of people do not behave as a collection of individuals; they behave as a collective.  Individuals weigh the consequences of their behaviour and tend to make informed choices about how to proceed when faced with a set of options.  Individuals within groups sometimes let the group make the decision on their behalf.  Sometimes this can lead to inaction.  The classic example of this effect is the story of Kitty Genovese.  Kitty Genovese was murdered while close to forty people stood and watched – the bystander effect.  No one took action because everyone thought the other would take action. 

The Vancouver riots, however, are not about inaction.  They are about action.  The presence of a ‘mob’ allowed each person to suspend the moral compass and relinquish decision making to the group – an evolutionary adaption that allows for collective intelligence and group survival in nature.  Individuals were no longer making choices for themselves.  This is clear from the sad stories being heard by many young people who are regretful of their actions.  To be clear, it does not absolve the individual from responsibility. It merely reminds us that the behaviour is not as unusual as we might expect.  “Herd” behaviour, “mob mentality” or “crowd hysteria” has been studied by psychologists and sociologists for decades.  Our knowledge of group behaviour has been used to understand far greater crimes including genocide in Rwanda – and other events that have had positive outcomes such as the overturning of governments in the middle east. 

The events that have followed the Vancouver riots are also a form of group behaviour – although most of this is taking place online through social media.  The vigilantly justice that is now causing witnesses to post photos and video of people and captioning these images with hateful and aggressive statements is an example of individuals gaining some strength from the larger community that is demanding justice.  The police have asked that these images be submitted by email or through secure channels.  However, a large volume of this material has been posted on public sites by people who otherwise respect other people and believe in “innocence until proven guilty.”  This public shaming is an act that is reinforced by the presence of a virtual group.   There has been research that has demonstrated that the power of the group decreases as the proximity of the group decreases.  In these cases, we are seeing an effect based on ‘virtual‘ groups – fascinating. 

The events of the last week are a reminder that groups are not individuals and we cannot expect them to behave as such.  It does not excuse any wrongdoing, but it does help us to understand that bad behaviour does not equal bad people. 

The real take home message – let’s all hope that the Canucks win the Stanley Cup next time.   


No Comments so far ↓

Like gas stations in rural Texas after 10 pm, comments are closed.