Crowd control: Deindividuation on the suicide scene

Source: John Giles/Guardian UK

By David McRaney
for the blog You Are Not So Smart

Do you think you’re capable of goading someone on a ledge to jump, all the while taking pictures and tweeting about it? You might think you’d never do such a thing — but as this blog entry points out, you are not so smart.

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

In San Francisco, in 2010, a man stepped onto the ledge of his apartment window and contemplated dropping from the building. A crowd gathered below and soon started yelling for him to jump. They even tweeted about it. He died on impact fifteen minutes later.

“i was there and im traumatized. the guys next to me were laughing telling him to jump and videotaping the whole thing. i’m still young and in high school and this is gunna stick with me for the rest of my life. there was a total lack of respect for the poor man and people were laughing when he jumped.”
– comment left at the SF Examiner

Police and firefighters are well aware of this tendency for crowds to gather and taunt, and this is why they tape off potential suicide scenes and get the crowd out of shouting distance. The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

To read more about the fascinating — and terrifying — phenomenon of deindividuation, click here.

There are a number of other hive-mind situations described in the article that have interesting implications for first responders. Have you ever responded to a “jumper” scenario? Did the crowd react similarly to those described in the entry?

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