Shaya Cohen -


Herd Stupidity

A friend of mine was traveling in Europe some years ago, and a few feet away on a public sidewalk near a café, a large man started beating up a woman – quite possibly his girlfriend. He had her on the ground, and he was systematically whacking her head against the curb.

My friend looked around, and although people were watching, nobody was doing anything. So my friend, a tourist from Scotland, acted. Despite being physically small and relatively unimposing, he promptly put himself in the middle of the two people and stared the attacker down until he decided to walk away. (My friend was, quite understandably, terrified). The woman needed – and received – medical attention.

What would you do in that situation? The answer may depend on how many people are around you.

We know from many studies that the chances of anyone intervening in such a circumstance depends a great deal on how many people are there. A person in a crowd thinks, “why me?” or otherwise rationalizes a wait-and-see posture – because after all, there is an entire crowd of people there doing nothing, so they must have a good reason, right? Being around other people gives us an excuse for inaction (at best) or even outright collusion.

When you add a dollop of anger or fear to the crowd, then you get a mob, an entity that moves and swells and responds as a single organic entity, with virtually no individual thought or consideration. Indeed, the mob, once in motion, responds to what it sees – a pathway that, unlike words, can entirely bypass the thinking parts of the brain. There are no individuals – there are just bodies in motion, thoughtless herd or pack instincts. The mob surges toward things that are perceived as desirable, and shies away from perceived threats. In these actions, with little or no individual thought, the helpless and hapless can be trampled. I know of PTSD for people who knowingly and consciously killed in battle. I think people have a much easier time rationalizing or simply forgetting trampling other people in a mob.

History has no shortage of such mobs, both in physical space and in the modern witchhunts against whomever is out of favor on any given day. Mobs and the mob mentality exist in every society, and in every age. Being in a mob and acting as part of it may indeed be the best way to ensure survival. We saw plenty of this kind of instinctive thinking with the reaction to Covid. After all, there are probably no recriminations after the fact as long as you did what everyone else was already doing. (We are seeing this now with the most egregious actors telling us to “get over it”).

Indeed, we could argue that there is a rational safety in the mob, one that we inherit from the animal kingdom. There is safety in numbers.  All highly social animals (from schools of fish to sheep and cows to starlings and blackbirds) come together to form archetypal mobs, acting as a swarm instead of as individuals. And people are similarly social creatures, able to spread our basest emotions – fear, anger, blood-lust – like a contagious disease.

The earliest recorded mob that I am aware of are the children of Israel leaving Egypt. As Joseph Cox points out, they are described at the beginning of Exodus as being like swarms of insects, filling the land. And they are similarly described when they leave Egypt as being chamushim, fivers – like the swarms of unthinking animals created on the fifth day. A mob. Stimulus and response. Not a single person below Moses and Aharon is allotted even enough individuality to be named. Nobody stands out.

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

The people were a mass, an unthinking bulk of people who responded to basest fear using only instinct.

Even in their speech, the people acted as one, as a mob:

And they said to Moses, “… what have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?”

This is the herd mentality. Moses tried to defuse it:

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which G-d will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.”

But the people feared anyway. The Hebrew word for “fear” is the same one for “see.” Moses was telling the people to not trust their eyes. He wanted them to rise above the base animalistic stimulus-response cycle that drives masses of people. Our eyes can bypass higher-order cognition. We can – and do – react to visual stimuli without requiring any pathway through our thinking brains.

It is perhaps for this reason that the splitting of the sea and the people marching into the seabed happened at night – when vision is impaired, and confusion can be at its highest. G-d ordered the people into the water before nightfall, but nobody moved.

Instead of trusting their eyes (which bypass the need for words and thought), Moses was trying to get the people to stop acting like a mindless swarm. He wanted them to listen to him, to think. Animals cannot hear an argument, they cannot grasp abstract concepts. People can – but only if they want to. Only if they can overcome nature, and reject their instinct to follow the herd.

The people get there eventually – after Sinai they became increasingly capable of thinking for themselves and reject reflexively following the crowd (think of Pinchas’ solo action in front of everyone, or of the daughters of Tzelofchad arguing their legal claim with Moses). The Torah is unstinting with its praise for those who, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were willing and able to do what they thought was right, even though they were alone in the world.

The story of the Exodus should be a cautionary tale for all times. The mob usually gets its way in the moment. But in hindsight, we know that a thoughtless mass of angry or afraid people very rarely gets things right.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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