Palm Sunday reminds us that following the crowd can have horrific results, and even the best of us have fallen into the trap.
If I see two restaurants side by side but one has more cars in the parking lot, I’m going to the one with more cars. I’m easily convinced that, if everyone else is there, it must be the right place to eat. No more thought needed. In a way, the popularity of a restaurant is a self-fulfilling prophecy: A crowd forms because we all go there, and we’re all there because a crowd is there.
Our susceptibility to doing what everyone else is doing starts young. For instance, if my toddler sees her brother with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she wants one, too. She isn’t even hungry. She doesn’t even like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But she wants to be included in the group. So she gets the sandwich, eats a bite, and wastes it. The next day, she will once again demand a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is at the root of what makes us susceptible to a mob.
You and I have probably been part of a mob. By that I don’t mean that we’ve marched down the street shouting slogans and threatening to riot or do violence. I doubt any of you have ever taken up pitchforks and hunted down Frankenstein’s monster. These days, the mob tends to be online, but the damage is every bit as real as if bricks had been thrown through windows and innocent people made to cower in their houses. The internet mob gets people fired from jobs, destroys friendships, launches invective and public shaming. It drives people to irrational choices and fear based on zero evidence. In spite of this, so deeply rooted is our desire to fit in that we quickly adapt to trends we see in our social media feeds.
The Gospel reading on Palm Sunday recognizes our susceptibility to becoming part of a mob. You may have noticed how we all join in shouting to scapegoat and crucify Christ. It’s an acknowledgment that following the crowd can have horrific results, and even the best of us have fallen into the trap.
In mobs, whoever talks the loudest and most persistently influences our thoughts to a shocking degree. Humans are social creatures, so we naturally want to be agreeable. It’s easier. It’s safer. It’s less fuss. We may even hold an entirely contrary belief in private, but are conditioned to think we’re in the wrong because no one else in the mob shares our opinion. We don’t want to be isolated, so we bury the offending belief.
This dynamic is why large groups accomplish less than small groups. In large groups, a mob mentality takes over the decision-making process and individual engagement decreases. The best decisions, the most rational ones, are only arrived at after a fair hearing of ideas. In groups that are too large, that communication is dampened because everyone has the impression that everyone else already shares the large group’s opinion. Out-of-the-box thinking disappears because, in a crowd, it’s safer to hide than call attention to yourself.
The results of this type of decision-making are disastrous. As personal engagement plummets, individuals take less and less responsibility. Freed from that responsibility, the conclusions of the overall group become more extreme and irrational. Inhibitions disappear, making us agree to speak and act in ways we never would on our own. We abandon our principles and adopt the group’s principles.
Every day, we are exposed to mob mentality. How are we to resist being swept away in the irrationality of the crowd? Here are a few thoughts …
Know who you are
Being in a mob is exciting. It makes us feel invisible and at the same time, influential. We can be part of the in-crowd while still knowing we won’t be held responsible for our actions. This is a bargain with the devil, requiring us to ignore our individual consciences. It’s far better to spend time in self reflection and develop accurate self-knowledge. Know yourself apart from the crowd and be confident in your identity.
Don’t shy away from being different
We all must follow our own conscience. We cannot give that responsibility to others. I know that, in my life, I’ve acted and spoken in certain ways that were wrong because everyone else was doing it. In the end, though, I realized that I’m accountable for my own actions. No excuses. I have to live with myself and would prefer to do so with integrity, so if that leads me to be different from the crowd sometimes, so be it.
Pause for a moment
Emotional reactions are instantaneous. Outrage, fear, and anger quickly spread through crowds. As individuals, it’s a wise idea to wait for our emotions to calm down, consider a few reasonable opinions, and then make a rational decision.
Don’t let the mob bully you
Advertisers, politicians, and social influencers understand they can use their power to control a mob. It can become a form of bullying that uses fear, shame, and peer pressure. Once we see it for what it is and stop participating, like any bully tactic, the mob loses its hold on us.
In the Gospel for Palm Sunday, it’s abundantly clear that a mob is a destructive force. We don’t have to join in. This isn’t the easiest path — sometimes it sets us at odds with the majority — but it’s the path that leads to integrity, rational decision-making, and personal growth.