The Baltimore Riots: How One Mother Yanked Her Son away From Mob Mentality

The Baltimore riots have given rise to many poignant images, but one of the most striking is a mother grabbing her masked son out of the crowd, screaming at him while smacking him in the head. According to CNN affiliate WMAR, the woman was angry because she spotted her son throwing rocks at police officers.

Thanking a Brave Woman

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts publicly thanked the woman, saying “…if you saw in one scene you had one mother who grabbed their child who had a hood on his head and she started smacking him on the head because she was so embarrassed. I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out there tonight.”

While the woman retained her sense of right and wrong in the middle of the melee, many people can be swept up by a larger group’s actions. This is commonly referred to as a mob mentality, or more specifically, deindividuation. This state of mind allows people to lose themselves in a situation and act in ways they wouldn’t normally behave. In Baltimore, the aftermath included the torching of 15 buildings and 144 cars and injuring two people who were accidentally shot while near the epicenter of the rioting and looting.

The Mob Mentality Trap

While the Baltimore riots started as a peaceful protest over the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, the protests escalated into violence when police increased their presence. The crowds began throwing bottles at the police and ended with parts of the city in flames.

Research shows that being in a crowd of others who are partaking in wrongdoing makes people feel more comfortable doing the same. While the famous 1976 study by Edward Diener (Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters) used children and candy, the same concept applies when protests become violent. Once a few people in a crowd become violent and begin throwing bottles or rocks, deindividuation makes it easier for others to join in. 

Several factors contribute to deindividuation — one is a sense of anonymity. Those who wouldn’t normally commit crimes on their own believe they won’t be discovered within a group. They also don’t feel responsible for their actions since they’re going along with everyone else. Finally, the larger the group, the more empowered they become.

Resisting Deindividuation

As the concerned mother demonstrated, individuals can be snapped out of the state of deindividuation by being singled out. In her son’s case, he was no longer part of the group. Instead, he became a young man facing a very angry mom holding him accountable for his actions.

To resist deindividuation, remember to assess your situation and your motives, especially in a large group. Will going along with the group really have the end result you’d like to see, or will it make matters worse? Would you do the same things if you were acting on your own? Answer those questions honestly and you’ll be a voice of reason instead of a faceless member of the mob whose actions make matters worse.