Hooligan behavior, partisan passion, and the fundamental attribution error

People yelling for blood at political rallies may not be bloodthirsy in real life. Most of them aren’t.

David Kennedy of John Jay College is an expert on youth street gangs, which is to say he understands the circumstances under which a bunch of guys who aren’t at root homicidal maniacs can get one another stoked up to murder people. David dissents from my characterization of the McCain supporters saying appalling things at those rallies as “fascist hooligans,” because he thinks I’m improperly characterizing individuals rather than behaviors.

That footage is appalling. My guess is that a number of those filmed doing appalling things would also find it appalling. We know some things that should temper how we view what we’re seeing, and that should slow us is jumping to the apparently obvious (but divisive and destructive) conclusion that McCain’s supporters are violent, bigoted, and stupid.

What we are watching is group behavior. Groups behave differently that do the individuals that compose them. They particularly behave differently when they are not well-constituted (most of those in line probably didn’t know one another); when they are under stress (Republicans are off-balance, and right now we’re all scared); when they are in new and unfamiliar situations (as Republicans are right now); when the rules that will govern the new situation have not yet taken form; and when they are in the presence of enemies (in this case, by their perception, probably both the Obama supporters and the interviewer).

In such circumstances, we know that certain dynamics tend to emerge. The most extreme individuals present tend to set the tone, through their behavior. Their behavior tends not to be challenged by others who are in fact less extreme or actively disapproving. The collective silence is read by the larger group as approval. In that new environment, still more extreme behavior tends to be modeled, and so on. What seems to be the collective support of the group may in fact not be that at all, but few challenge it, and those who do face the disapproval of a collective that acts as if there is in fact consensus. These are all well-documented and studied phenomena: “risky shift,” “extremism,” “group polarization,” etc. Individuals can act in the belief that all other members of a group hold a view that none in fact hold: “pluralistic ignorance.” But a group comprised of individuals who so believe will act as if the belief is true, and in the ordinary course of things there is nothing to break the collective delusion. Groups, especially in settings of nervous or fearful uncertainty, frequently move very rapidly to very bad places.

Does it mean all the group’s members are very bad people? No, but we like to think it does. On the other side, there is a tendency for people observing others’ behavior to believe that it is the grounded outcome of settled disposition and decision, rather than outside pressure, internal misgiving, or passing circumstance: “fundamental attribution error.” So we don’t see the contingent outcomes of group processes; we see individual toxicity. This has done our cause enormous damage in the not-so-recent past, as when Bennett, DiIulio et al. looked at the wave of youth violence of the ’90s and saw “superpredators” rather than chaotic but predictable group dynamics driven by scared, desperate kids.

Let’s not do the same thing. That clip showed disgusting, scary behavior. I strongly suspect that the McCain supporters are not, in fact, disgusting, scary people. What the clip was really showing, I suspect, was a slow-motion mob scene, collective behavior at its too-often-predictable worst. Grab one of the people line, sit down with them for coffee today, show them the tape, and most of them would probably have serious second thoughts. America is, for all its faults, not much for fascist hooliganism. Let’s leave demonization to the other side.

Point taken. I’m less confident than David is that the people shown acting like hooligans would disapprove of their own behavior were they shown the tape. As Hume says, factional loyalties cause people to morally approve of actions which they would never consider doing for merely selfish purposes.

My chief complaint is not about the beastly behavior of McCain’s supporters, but about the cynical political manipulation that leads them to act in beastly fashion. The onus for that is on McCain, on his advisers, and on Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media machine.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com