You could have seen the bonfire for miles in the dark. It was huge; as it snapped and sparked, clouds of acrid smoke from the dampened wood rose into the night sky. I was in a giant hooded sweatshirt borrowed from the girl sitting in a camping chair on my left, Jessica, and holding hands with her and another girl, Susie. Our wrists were wrapped in homemade friendship bracelets. Susie’s hand was sweaty.
Around us, sitting in a circle around the fire, were all the other girls at Young Women Camp, a weeklong summer retreat for teenage Mormon girls. It was our last night there. We sang songs like “Sippin’ Cider Through a Straw” and “Kumbaya.” When we were done singing, the night was black around us, and it was time to bear our testimonies. In the Mormon faith, this means talking about how being a member of the church makes you feel, and how God has helped you to know that the gospel is true.
I was 16, and I no longer believed. It was my secret. I had begun to doubt the church’s teachings when I was 15, and by 16 I was quietly, privately sure they weren’t for me. I hadn’t told a soul.
The girls took turns bearing their testimony, their voices welling up with emotion. Some of them cried as they spoke. When Jessica’s turn came, her face shone with tears as she talked about how she sometimes had a hard time following the teachings of the gospel, but how she felt God helping her always. It was beautiful. Then it was my turn. What would I say? Should I tell the truth—that I didn’t believe anymore? We’d had a wonderful week together; I felt like these girls were my family. Everyone was waiting for me to begin.
So I said what I knew I was supposed to say: that I, too, had a hard time following all the rules of the church and living a Christ-like life, but I had faith that God would help me be strong. Then, all of a sudden, tears were streaming down my face, and I was unable to speak. I was certain in that moment that my lack of faith was the very thing God wanted me to work through, that my recent non-belief was a sin that Satan had planted in my heart. “I just…I know this church is true,” I gurgled before sitting back down.
We sang a final song, hugged each other, and continued to cry as we walked back to our tents. In the morning, we packed up, loaded the vans, and started the drive home. I stared out the window, confused. What had happened back there? I knew the Mormon explanation: I had been touched by the Spirit, and it was a still, small voice whispering to me about the truth of my faith.
But wait—I didn’t believe. I had been working through this for months, and I was sure I wanted out. I had said what I knew I was supposed to say that night around the bonfire, not actually believing a word of it…so why had I suddenly cried like that? Had it been the magic of the fire? A sense that it had been a safe, nonjudgmental place to release feelings? (Back then, I would never have openly cried in public if I could help it.) Was it the combination of an emotionally charged evening with close female bonding in an unfamiliar setting? Or was I…wrong? Maybe the church was true. In the light of day, in a van driving down a long stretch of Wisconsin highway, I tried to understand exactly what my tears had meant.
People act differently when they’re in a group. They feed off the energy of other humans. They get excited, sad, bored, etc. when others are displaying those emotions. Not copying feelings, per se, but definitely sensing the vibe of the crowd and then consciously or unconsciously altering their own behavior to fit in with it. Sometimes it’s like becoming part of a shared mind, you know?
In the early ’70s, a guy named Irving Janis who was studying group dynamics came up with the word groupthink to describe the way we often turn off our critical and rational faculties to fit in with a group. I believe groupthink had something to do with why I cried that night at camp—my fellow campers and I were all about the same age, we’d all had an emotionally intimate and intense week together, and everyone else seemed to be feeling, really feeling, something greater than themselves when we were there together in the spookiness of the bonfire light. So I played along, without ever really deciding to. I’m not suggesting that all religious feeling comes from groupthink! No way—lots of people really do believe in and experience deep emotions related to their faiths. I just don’t think that’s what happened with me.
But groupthink isn’t the only weirdness that getting together with other people can wreak! Let’s talk about some of the other strangeness that can be found in numbers, starting with the ones that I think about most.
“Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”
Please tell me you know the game “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” We played it at slumber parties for years, and it always, ALWAYS freaked everyone the hell out. Legend has it that “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” (LAAFSAAB) has been around for centuries, and it can be played a bunch of different ways. The main idea is that a group of people gather around one person who lies flat on the floor. Then everyone places a finger or two, palms-up, under the lying-down person’s body, and chants in unison, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board, light as a feather, stiff as a board.” They repeat it over and over again as they try to lift up, or “levitate,” that person’s body. Sound impossible? Well, guess what? IT WORKS, and it is pretty freakin’ freaky. The person often “rises” faster than you think she will, and it looks like she’s floating, until everyone freaks out and drops her. I was not allowed to play this game at my slumber parties, because my parents felt it was “demonic.”
Like a Ouija board, LAAFSAAB is cool and a little creepy. Also like Ouija, there’s a good explanation for it that doesn’t have anything to do with demons. The success of LAAFSAAB depends on numbers (of people) and timing (of the lifting). It turns out that it’s easier than anyone expects to lift something heavy when the weight is evenly distributed among four or more people, even when they’re only using their fingers; and the chanting helps time the lifting so it’s perfectly in unison, according to ABC Science. Still, every time I play this game, the group’s seemingly hidden power is amazing and sort of scary.
Most massive gatherings—like protests, victory celebrations, and vigils—are totally peaceful. Only a tiny fraction of the time do things get OUT OF CONTROL. And yet, I’m scared to death of huge crowds. Big groups of people are unpredictable! Hundreds of thousands of people in the same place at once does not equal hundreds of thousands of brains individually making the best and most rational decisions.
Mob mentality happens when individuals in a crowd turn into one (unruly) whole. When they’re in the midst of a throng of people all doing the same thing at the same time, people tend to feel less responsible for their own actions. This is how a crowd celebrating, for example, a sports team’s big win can end up knocking down lampposts and bashing in store windows. Everyone else is breaking things, so it suddenly feels OK for me to do it. Mob mentality is behind those horror stories you hear about people getting trampled on Black Friday, soccer hooliganism, and riots.
There is almost nothing more frightening to me than an angry mob. I haven’t encountered one yet, which may be because you will never, ever find me in places like Times Square on New Year’s Eve with one million other people.
The Bystander Effect
There is one thing that worries me more than what a crowd might do, and that is that it would do nothing. The Bystander Effect happens when someone sees a crisis unfolding before his or her eyes, but doesn’t do anything to help because there are so many other people around. No matter what you call it, it’s a potentially awful social phenomenon, especially when someone clearly needs assistance, many other people are present, and no one comes to his or her aid.
A famous example of the Bystander Effect was the 2010 death of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, who several people saw on a sidewalk in Queens, New York, bleeding from a stabbing wound, but did not help. HOW COULD ANYTHING LIKE THIS HAPPEN, OMFG? According to research on the Bystander Effect, it happens because everyone is waiting for someone else to do something, or thinking that it must be Someone Else’s Problem (SEP). And the more people there are around the person having an emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.
Because if no one is doing anything, could something really be wrong? In the case of Kitty Genovese, she was screaming! OF COURSE SOMETHING WAS WRONG. But people went about their evenings—not in a malicious way (I hope), but in the “someone else will take care of this” kind of way.
The list of things humans do—or don’t do—in groups that they could never do alone goes on and on. To me, that is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Now excuse me while I go and sit in my bedroom, with the door locked, ALONE. ♦