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I’ve always been afraid, even as an adult, of groups of teenaged boys.
Why? The wilding.
Because I once was a teenager who hung around in just that kind of group, and it’s frightening to know how quickly and easily a gaggle of young men can turn from harmless fun to sudden violence.
You can, of course, find scientific studies that try to explain such behaviour.
The idea that all sorts of otherwise demonstrably good people (and not just volatile teens either, whose brains are, after all, still developing) would do demonstrably bad things bully, launch false attacks, threaten harm or even do physical harm — is one well worth explaining.
I am, it must be stressed, not any form of scientist or academic, but I’m fascinated by things like a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014. (That, in areas like behavioural science, is a long time ago, and it may be superseded by newer work.)
That study argued that the key here is groups. Here’s what one researcher had to say about it.
“Although humans exhibit strong preferences for equity and moral prohibitions against harm in many contexts, people’s priorities change when there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, pointed out in Science Daily.
“A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.”
Being part of a group means you have to demonstrate how you fit in, even if that behaviour’s something you’d never do on your own.
But the research, which was published in the journal NeuroImage, also pointed out that there’s a big difference in how the brain works between when someone’s acting as an individual and when they are acting in concert with others.
The study found that, once working in a group or team, brain scans showed that there was actually reduced activity in the part of the brain that is in play when a person thinks about themselves, including making decisions on the morality of their behaviour.
Maybe that’s because being part of a group has, for so long, been a necessary part of survival — and being part of a group means you have to demonstrate how you fit in, even if that behaviour’s something you’d never do on your own.
Signalling your fealty to the group you want to be part of — or want to remain part of — may be critical. As Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom put it in an interview with Vox, “We’re all sensitive to social hierarchies and to a desire for approval and esteem. So we often fold to the social pressures of our environment.”
It’s already well known that groups can normalize all sorts of behaviour, right down to physical violence.
When you look at it through the internet lens — with an idea that sets of friends or like-minded contacts are themselves a social group — you might see the reason why someone who would rush through traffic to help you if they saw you fall down, would also be able to justify taking part in a faceless, violent, even false or fabricated e-bullying of you.
Buoyed by the dopamine kick of likes or re-tweets, suddenly, they’re secure in their group. And in that place, their brains may be helping by actually ignoring any troubling moral qualms.
And there’s an interesting spot to end on.
What if the biology and behaviour that leads to, say, teen swarmings or even police overreaction in mob scenes, is actually eerily similar to the need to join in on the latest internet bullying pile-on?
We’ve come so far.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com — Twitter: @wangersky.