Catalytic Culture

catalytic (2)

The bystander effect is a popularly known phenomenon in which people are less likely to help someone in need when there are more people around. The theory behind this effect is that personal ethical responsibility gets divided increasingly with each additional bystander. There is also a sense that someone else will act, specifically because there are so many people around, at least one of them must respond to the person in need. There is an intuitive sense that the likelihood of someone helping the individual in need increases the more people there are, which becomes an issue when all bystanders are thinking the same thing. There is also a sense that we can be guilt free, because you are only acting in alignment with everyone else. 

There is another known effect that correlates with the number of bystanders known as deindividuation. This is the tendency for antisocial behavior to increase in an individual when in a crowd of strangers. Researchers have hypothesized that this is due to the fact that a sense of anonymity emerges as the number of people increases. There may also be a few more things at play here. Consider what typically holds people back from anti-social behavior. Mostly we think of guilt, but there is also the fear of being persecuted or punished. Many of us fear the social defeat experience that comes along with antisocial behavior. Rather than crowd size interacting with empathy or guilt, it may be that crowd size is interacting with the fear of social defeat, specifically due to the way that the bystander effect may protect people from public persecution in some of these cases.

It could be that antisocial people (or generally most people) have tested the limits of different social contexts and environments and have developed an intuitive sense of security in crowds of strangers. It could be that the bystander effect largely prevents people from engaging or punishing antisocial behavior when the number of bystanders increases, which means that those who act antisocially will naturally feel more safe because these social contexts have not produced an aversion or fear to engaging in antisocial behavior. It is similar to how the presence of an authority can make one become more inhibited and more rule-abiding despite not knowing the individual in authority. We stereotype, expect, and fear consequences based on assumptions related to social cues such as police uniforms due to social roles. The bystanders of large crowds have lead people to feel a secure sense of freedom from consequence, facilitating antisocial behavior. 

This may have implications for mass hysteria and mobbing tendencies. Perhaps what starts as antisocial behavior and risky social behaviors can evolve when multiple people align in agreement with the broken norms. In the case of antisocial behavior motivated by ideologies, a collective unity can build upon the antisocial behaviors. The first actors step out, challenge the social norm and then establish a new normalized set of behaviors. These individual become leaders of new subgroups that are built upon what become new social norms. Not conforming to these evolved norms might cause a pressure, a fear of social defeat for challenging the new law set by these leaders. More individuals may conform to these newly set rules and some researchers suggest a contagion element plays a role. Another factor to antisocial disinhibition may be the awareness that authority loses power with mob size.

Not only does this have implications for mobbing tendencies, it also has implications for the internet. People have argued that the internet allows for anonymity or physical protection that facilitates antisocial behavior. Expanding on this, it may be these very dynamics that underlie the antisocial patterns of behavior that emerge in crowds of strangers also applies to the internet, a virtual space with many crowd-like environments. Consider Facebook. Not only is Facebook not anonymous, but it practically exists as your cyber ID card and yet it breeds aggressive attitude and antisocial behaviors in many subcultures that exist on the platform. Since violent mobbing seems to occur in the real world, it doesn’t seem to be the case that antisocial behavior emerges solely from the physical protection provided by the cyber environment.

The tendency towards non-conformity and general antisocial behavior to emerge in large crowds will allow the internet to become a space where culture dissolves and new tribes form rapidly and continuously. Perhaps this will be a good thing in the end, a catalyst to cultural evolution.

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