Who you gonna call? A mob


“Look, I’d had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was: “That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.” “Blasphemy! “”

Large crowds are inherently scary. Not, perhaps at first glance, but those of us that live in large cities do so under the assumption that while crowds are somewhat chaotic  and have the potential for danger, they will never be intentionally malevolent, at least not towards us. Yet there is still an unease there, of the type that underlies the kind of horror frequently employed in post-apocalyptic zombie films or John Carpenter flicks, that very quickly the crowd can turn against you.

Perhaps this is not totally unreasonable source of anxiety – while most violence in London (where I’ve recently started living) tends to be of the individual-on-individual sort, mob violence is more frequently a reality for many living in developing countries. Take, for instance, this new report by the incredibly prolific NGO Twaweza on violence in Tanzania. Drawing upon a nationally-representative phone survey, one of the most striking results is deaths due to mob violence appear to be more common (or are as commonly-perceived by respondents) than ordinary murders: twaweza

In fact, as many people are killed by mobs as by ordinary citizens, police and the national army combined. If we consider mob violence to be a form of extra-legal justice, imagine a government which executes more people than those who commit murder. While these figures are based on perceptions and should be taken with a grain of assault, it’s worth noting that forensic investigations into violent deaths in Dar es Slaam reveal that at least 10% are due to mob justice, still a staggering number.

Yet, outside of the occasional hushed ex-pat dinner party conversation or resigned lamentations by locals, I’ve rarely hear people actually discuss the causes and consequences of mob violence in much detail (although as I write this I suspect that a reader will soon point out that something akin to a Journal of Mobbing Studies which I will have overlooked). Malawi, where I lived for some, seemed particularly afflicted with mob violence centred around automobile accidents, where the drivers of cars found to be at fault were often assaulted, and sometimes killed. This happened with enough frequency to create a culture of “fleeing the scene,” where drivers who were not even directly connected to an accident drove off for fear of being blamed and attacked (this was the basis for a film I shot whilst living there). I began thinking about the issue again when, recently, one of the respondents in a survey I’m helping run in Dar es Salaam was killed by a mob after (purportedly) murdering another resident. 

What leads to mobbing and why does it appear to be more prevalent in societies with dysfunctional institutions? Let’s take the armchair economist position for a moment: it would probably be fairly easy to write down a herding model where people update their beliefs about a person’s guilt based on the behaviour of others. Person 1 decides, for whatever reason, that the accused is guilty, person 2 updates his/her beliefs based on person 1′s belief, and so on, until you have a mob which is convinced that the accused is guilty. If you combine that with a utility function that inversely weights the disutility or ‘guilt’ one might feel  from being personally responsible for a death (I take comfort in knowing I probably didn’t throw the fatal stone), it’s easy to see how mobs might easily form in a context where punishment would otherwise be uncertain.

While this sort of explanation is rather intuitive, I find it a bit unsatisfying for three reasons: i) it ignores the drivers of the probability of punishment in the counterfactual and ii) it assumes that mob behaviour is solely defined over the desire to inflict justice on the guilty. It also tells us nothing about why people are more likely to be stoned to death in Dar es Salaam than, say, Myrtle Beach. A couple of thoughts:

i) What happens if we don’t stone people to death? Most socio-cultural explanations share a similar premise: people rely on mob violence precisely because they do not trust the formal justice system to get the verdict right. If the police and judiciary are capable of finding and punishing the right person, our need to rely on selection-via-herding decreases. If this is true, then strengthening the formal justice system should reduce mob violence. This falls apart if people can selectively engage the formal system – if mob justice isn’t just about guaranteeing some form of punishment, then perpetrators may still choose vigilantism over bringing in the police. This brings me to the next thought:

ii) Is this really about punishment? As with most social/political/economics concepts, Monty Python got there first: in Life of Bryan overzealous women disguise themselves with fake beards so they can throw stones at people for the fun of it. If mobs are primarily made up of young angry men, then we might begin to suspect this has more to do with the tendency for young, angry men to enjoy a bit of the ultra-violence.

Is there a quick fix here, other than waiting for the legal system to become strong enough to both reasonably guarantee punishment of those that commit the initial crime and those who engage in mob justice? Given the snowballing nature of mob violence, moving quickly to both disrupt the initial signal (that the accused must be guilty) and raise the cost of participation (a less extreme version of the Desmond Tutu method of mob justice defusal, perhaps). Do we need a roving band of mob-busters to save the day?

Or perhaps it is reasonable that mob justice is so infrequently subject to policy discussion – it is something which probably declines as countries get richer and their institutions grow more robust, so is it really deserving of too much scrutiny? 

One thought on “Who you gonna call? A mob

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    April 9, 2014 at 9:57am

    I think another question you need to ask is ‘what distinguishes acute mob violence from sustained collusion or participation in violence?’ We have plenty of examples of massive collusion in violence (Germany, Rwanda – there are plenty of others) and there is a *lot* of literature that discusses why people do evil things. Much focuses on the ordinariness or mundanity of evil – how the group mentality can, in a flash, change the status quo to ‘kill’ or ‘attack’ rather than ‘protect’ or ‘leave be’, and how this feels normal.

    I’m reading Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? at the moment, about Jewish Partisans in WW2. What’s interesting is that even the reader gets drawn in to this mindset. When presented by a Nazi officer in a concentration camp (nameless, rankless in the text), the hesitation of the Partisans in killing him jars much more than his eventual death – yet this is basically extra-judicial mob violence, albeit one with a higher standard of evidence for the crime.

    Basically, I think the answer to these questions will be much more psychological than economic; though the solutions may be more institutional/economic than psychological (i.e. more fair and transparent and effective justice systems reduce the possibility of finding outlets for this alternative mob mentality; or more effective punishment for it makes raises the bar before it ‘switches on’). Having said that, it’s not disappeared anywhere – think the paedophile witch-hunts the british gutter press tries (and sometimes succeeds) in stirring up. There have been examples of mob violence here even in the last few months.

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