Bandits. We all have an image in our mind of how bandits look. Media likes to portray them as these evil, selfish individuals who act in a group and hoard, scavenge, or steal resources from others. For many of us, such actions seem incomprehensible. How can we as human beings, as civilized people, resort to such barbaric actions with no regard for others’ safety and wellbeing? A lot of us assume that these are merely exaggerations shown in popular media, and to an extent that is true. However, it is important to note that these situations are not exactly out of the realm of possibility. The following are just a few psychological perspectives as to why people may resort to these types of actions and why it may not be as uncommon as one might think.
Now there are things that we as a society wouldn’t simply do unprovoked. We like to generally think that everyone is to an extent civilized and respectful, save the occasional jerk. More often than not, when we see someone in need of help on the street, we take our time to give them a hand given it wouldn’t inconvenience us too much. Human beings are generally social creatures, and we take comfort in knowing that should we be in a similar situation, others will also come and help us. Our dependence on each other is ingrained in our DNA, being social beings, we need to not only survive physically, but psychologically as well. (The Negative Effects of Too Much Alone Time, 2019). Our dependence on each other dates back to our hunter-gatherer origins, where simply put, without each other our chances of survival is lower.
Now take everything that’s been said above, and apply them to a more panicked situation. At the beginning of the pandemic, back when everyone’s safety was less than guaranteed, we saw an influx of stockpiling of basic essentials. In the Philippines we saw the hoarding of rubbing alcohol and face masks, some keeping it for themselves, while others used it as a way to artificially inflate the cost of said items by reducing the supply at a time where demand is high. In other countries, certain other items received the same treatment, like for example: in the US, toilet paper was bought out so much that it even became a popular internet meme to exaggerate its value.
Even with the apparent hilarity of the situation, one cannot ignore how badly this affected people’s behaviors. Normally civil individuals have been forced into a situation where they must fend for themselves. People forget each other in the pursuit of preserving their own. It went so far to the point that others have even resorted to violence in order to get what they need, or at least, what they perceive to need. These actions are not far from the actions of what we envision as bandits in popular media. Sure they may not have the spiky leather outfits and warpaint on their faces, but acting as individuals, they are taking stuff others may need, sometimes forcefully, sometimes illegally.
Another situation would be riots. We’ve seen our fair share of riots in the past year. During the chaos that ensued, many businesses have been raided and ransacked for items that people don’t even need, but merely want. People broke into stores to steal expensive sneakers, TV sets, even cheesecakes, which are very much unrelated to the subject of the protest at that time.
What we see in this situation is mob mentality. Things that people wouldn’t do as an individual, they might as a collective. People lose sight of their inhibitions when their mentality matches that of a group’s. Even if the original intent of a group was good, if their approach is aggressive, it may evolve into violence as that aggression magnifies along with the group becoming larger. (James, n.d.) Yelling turns to screaming, screaming turns to destruction, destruction turns to violence, and that violence turns into malice. Now in no way am I saying that we should never protest, there are situations where protests have led to the betterment of society. I am merely highlighting how human group dynamics may lead to violent, and even malicious behavior.
Multiple psychological theories address the topic of crowd behavior, and in turn, why people may act differently in crowds rather than when alone. The first theory would be the Contagion Theory as proposed by Gustave Le Bon (1895). The Contagion Theory states that being in a crowd overtakes individuals’ sense of self and individuality in an almost hypnotic way, essentially separating an individual from his/her own responsibilities, at least in their own perspective. Being in a group almost “lessens” the weight of one’s actions as they can be anonymous and not be solely responsible for the actions the collective takes.
Another theory, the Convergence Theory, proposes that it is not the fact that one is in a crowd that produces violent behavior, rather the violent behavior exists prior and is simply acted upon due to like-minded individuals acting for the same goal. Applying it to the current situation, it may be people who are already accustomed to the idea of taking from others, but simply needed people to support him/her in doing so, people who are similar in their perspectives.
The third theory is the Emergent-Norm Theory (Turner and Killian, 1957). This theory takes both of the theories above into consideration, proposing that both the lack of individual responsibility as well as the convergence of like-minded individuals results in a particular crowd behavior. A norm is formed by a crowd based on their own perspective of the situation and what behavior they feel it warrants. In other words, a bandit group may act based on their likeliness to steal from others and their sense of safety in numbers.
Furthermore, an individual may commit cruel acts on others without remorse by using a coping mechanism called dehumanization. Dehumanization is the disposition that someone being acted upon is “less than human,” and therefore is not subject to the same rights other humans have (Kelman, 1976). This allows an individual to act in unthinkable ways without having to reflect on the ramifications of his/her actions. The person stolen from or killed is merely a means for the bandit to survive, nothing more, nothing less. Dehumanization allows people to do cruel acts simply for their amusement, it is not out of the water for people to use it as a way to cope with evil acts for survival.
It doesn’t stop there, however. In popular media, such as video games and movies, we see bandits portrayed as almost tribal in nature, with monstrous outfits, brutal weaponry, and even barbaric war cries. Surely this is exaggeration on their part, yes? Maybe, but such events could happen, as one may even dehumanize themselves. They act like monsters and behave barbarically in an attempt to separate themselves from civilization and almost subconsciously regress in rational thinking so that they can justify their actions (Kouchaki, et al., 2018). If they were to act like monsters, they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions since as monsters, they are expected to act in monstrous ways. The human mind is resilient in protecting itself, finding ways to justify actions in order to keep sane, even if that sanity is kept through borderline insanity. There is still a lot we don’t know about the human mind, so we can only really speculate.
Knowing all this, what can we do as individuals? Surely we are not able to control the actions of others. To that, I say, what we can do is control ourselves. Take care of yourself and your loved ones, but don’t let that get in the way of your humanity.
Don’t lose yourself in pursuit of preserving yourself.
Crossman, A. (2019, September 30). What is convergence theory? Thought Co. https://www.thoughtco.com/convergence-theory-3026158
James, W. (n.d.). The psychology of mob mentality and violence. Dr. Wendy James. https://drwendyjames.com/the-psychology-of-mob-mentality-and-violence/
Kelman, H. (1976). Violence without moral restraint: reflections on the dehumanization of victims and victimizers.
Kouchaki, M., Dobson, K., Waytz, A., & Kteily, N. S. (2018). The Link Between Self-Dehumanization and Immoral Behavior. Psychological science, 29(8), 1234–1246. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618760784
Le Bon, G. (1895). The crowd: a study of the popular mind.
The negative effects of too much alone time. (2019, February 8). Exploring Your Mind. https://exploringyourmind.com/negative-effects-alone-time/
Turner, R., & Killian, L. (1993). Collective behavior 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs N. J., Prentice-Hall