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News Tip: Why People Take Part in Violent Flash Mobs

From London to Maryland, flash mobs are more frequently rowdy and violent. The role of social media has helped propel this trend. 

Mark LearyProfessor of psychology and neuroscience, Duke Universityleary@duke.edu

Leary's research interests are in social and personality psychology, centering around topics involving self-awareness, interpersonal motivation and emotion, and interfaces of social and clinical psychology.


Social Aspect 

"Flash mob thuggery actually involves two distinct phenomena -- the flash mob part and the thuggery part. Flash mobs erupt for all kinds of reasons, most of them banal and pointless, and the motive seems to be primarily social in nature -- being part of some group or collective action, if even for a brief point of time. I suspect that groups of friends respond to flash mob calls more than isolated individuals, which is probably one motive for violent and illegal flash mobs. It's like a spontaneous street gang in which participants become part of a larger social group.

"The flash mob part isn't qualitatively different than things that people did before social media, but the media allows a larger-scale coordination among more people than old-fashioned streaking or 'Chinese fire drills.'"

Violence Aspect

"The illegal and violent component is also not unlike ordinary crimes where a group of people do something illegal. What social media adds is the ability to recruit such a large group of people, that individuals who would not rob a store or riot on their own feel freer to misbehave without being identified.

"Research on 'deindividuation' shows that large groups in which the individuals feel unidentifiable by virtue of group size, darkness or uniforms, for example, sometimes engage in surprisingly destructive behaviors. My hunch is that people who participate in flash mob thuggery also engage in smaller acts of crime and violence, and the flash mob simply provides an additional deindividuating element that makes it easier for them to act in these ways.

"Plus, again, the social, collective element is appealing. It's more fun to do wild things in a group than by oneself."