Empathy

As a psychotherapist, I am often asked how I can listen to people’s problems all day long? Isn’t it exhausting, or even worse, annoying? They might assume that I have limitless stores of empathy. While it is true that empathy, warmth, and genuineness in psychotherapy are critical for a good therapeutic relationship, it doesn’t stop there. An effective therapist utilizes tools and interventions to improve the client’s situation.

Can you have too much empathy? Ideally, therapists have a combination of empathy, sympathy and compassion. If I were to become as distraught as my client who suffers, therapy would not be effective. It is the therapist’s job to take action to prevent this pain in the future, rather than crying with them.

It is important to distinguish empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Empathy is feeling and sharing someone’s emotions. It is from the heart. It says “I feel your pain.” Sympathy is not feeling the other’s pain, but is having an intellectual understanding of it. It is from the head. Although overstated, it is like saying “it sucks to be you” but also includes a wish to see the other better off or happier. And compassion is the end goal of empathy. It is not simply feeling their pain, and understanding their pain, but acting to alleviate their pain. Compassion asks, “how can I help you?”

Are we born with empathy? Many researchers believe that one can learn to be empathic. Parents who encourage their children to imagine the perspectives of others, and teaching the child to reflect on their own feelings, and expressing warmth toward the child will develop empathy in the child. When I see a baby that responds to another baby, who is crying, with compassion, I know that their parent, or caretaker, has done a good job of nurturing the child.

We can also lose the capacity for empathy. Empathy can be disrupted from such things as a brain injury or stroke, particularly if it occurs on the right side of the brain.

We are more empathic toward people who are more similar to us. And it is more likely to occur between individuals whom we see more frequently. It is more difficult to empathize when there are differences between people including status, culture, religion, language, skin color, gender, and age.

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes an empathy scale from 0 (having no empathy at all) to 6 (an unstoppable state of empathy for others). Those with zero empathy are psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial personality types. Those at a level of 6 will cry with others who are crying. This leads to burnout, and can be a burden to others. Others will then feel the need to attend to your pain.

Baron-Cohen developed a 60-item questionnaire, called the Empathy Quotient (EQ) designed to measure empathy in adults. I took the test and scored 49 out of 80. Higher scores indicate greater levels of empathy. That makes me just a bit higher than average. The truth for me is that at the end of the day as a psychotherapist, my clients take their problem with them. I leave the office to carry on with my own business, attending to my own problems.

Obedience to Authority: How Far Should You Take It?

Most people have seen the videotape of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. Apparently, the flight was over-booked and four United crew members were needed for another flight the next day. United requested four passengers to give up their seats. Three of the four went quietly, but Dr. Dao, a 69 year old Kentucky physician, refused. Three security officers pulled him out of his seat. Dr. Dao suffered a concussion, broken nose and damaged sinuses and lost two front teeth when he was dragged off a flight. His family was “horrified, shocked and sickened” by the incident. His daughter said “What happened to my dad should never have happened to any human being, regardless of the circumstances.”

There is public outcry about this man’s treatment. United Airlines personnel were acting in accordance with the airline’s policy. They were following protocol. In the aftermath of this incident, United has apologized, refunded the other passenger’s fees, and changed their policy. Although they were following the chain of command, didn’t they have a higher moral principle at stake here? Should they have taken the moral high ground and refused to engage in this violence?

Many of us would like to think that we would’ve tried to intervene to stop the violence. It’s easy to blame the airline, the security officers, perhaps even the other passengers for sitting idly by. In my fantasies, I’d like to think that I would offer myself as a shield and encourage others to do the same. But the truth is, I am not a courageous person. If given a choice of fight, flight or freeze, my history tells me that I would freeze.

There are rules after all, and we are expected to play by the rules, right? Dr. Dao did not follow orders. There may be times when we are called to make a choice between obeying authority and respecting the dignity and safety of another human being. Sometimes our conscious speaks to us. We may know right from wrong, but don’t always act accordingly.

It turns out that humans are hardwired to obey authority. From childhood we are taught to obey authorities like our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and our bosses. We lack training in disobedience toward unjust authority.

There are two psychological studies that address obedience to authority figures, the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. These studies show that on average, people will obey authority figures despite moral objections, and will become authoritative and cruel in position of power. We are wired to follow leaders and side with in-groups (and against out-groups as we perceive them) at the expense of moral principles.

Stanley Milgram did a study at Yale in 1961 in which an authority figure tells a person to shock a person in the other room when that person gets the wrong answer on a test. As a Jewish American, he wanted to know why the average German would enact cruel orders of the NAZI party, without question. He found that all participants obeyed the authority figure despite moral objections. None of the participants checked on the victim to see if they were OK, and no one requested that the experiment be stopped.

Phillip Zimbardo, conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, during the 1970s to understand the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. People were randomly assigned the status of prisoner or guard. The study found that the guard became authoritative and abusive, and the prisoners tended to obey the guards, even though they knew it was just an experiment. Repeated studies show similar results all over the world. It is believed that people are naturally primed to obey authority, likely due to group dynamics. Obedience involves a hierarchy of power or status. Conformity happens through social group pressure.

Adolf Eichmann helped organize the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were killed. He was executed in 1962. He expressed surprise that Jewish people hated him, stating that he had just followed orders, and that obeying orders is a good thing. He wrote “The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question.” He did not appear to be a monster – he had a normal family life, was declared sane and was described as very average. His behavior was the product of social expectations.

The United incident happened quickly. What would you do? We don’t always have time to thoughtfully consider our options. Next time you “just follow orders,” take a deep breath, quiet your fears, and make a principled decision.

Spring Cleaning: Are You a Neat Freak or a Slob?

It’s that time of year when we think about doing a thorough spring cleaning of our homes. Some people switch out winter clothes for summer outfits and store them away for the next season. They may declutter, organize and clean up their home. Many people believe that cleanliness is next to godliness. But is it true? Do neat freaks get the moral high ground over people who prefer a mess?

I like to think of myself as a tidy and well-organized person. The first thing I do when I get home at the end of the day is line the bird cage with fresh paper and “scan and can” the mail, recycling all unnecessary paper. I’m unnerved that our neighborhood no longer recycles glass. If I have a work project to complete, I organize my environment before getting to it. It clears my mind in order to focus better. My husband on the other hand, while I wouldn’t want to call him a slob, prefers his workplaces to be a free-flowing work in progress. He is most comfortable in a haphazard environment.

One can argue on both sides of the neat freak – slob continuum. Some say that cleanliness is associated with an improved mood, decreased stress, improved productivity, being more generous, and eating healthier foods. An Indiana University study found that people with clean houses are healthier and more active than people with messy houses. In fact, cleanliness is one factor that predicts physical health. A different study showed that women who described their living spaces as cluttered were more likely to be depressed and fatigued than women who described their homes as “restful.” Women with cluttered homes have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. In 2011, a Princeton University study found that clutter can actually make it more difficult to focus on a particular task. But in its extremes, cleanliness can become a manic activity; a psychological disorder.

On the other hand, a mess provides a more fertile ground for originality and creativity. Einstein, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs had messy desks. Clutter can be mentally exhausting for some, but I’ve also heard that hoarders feel best within tight spaces. Well-meaning friends or professionals may help the hoarder clean out their homes, only to find that they have created the same environment months or years later.

The problem begins when you share space with someone who objects to your style. Slobs are never going to be neat freaks, and neat freaks are not going to be total slobs. The truth is that we have certain traits and preferences that don’t change much once formed and firmly established. These orientations come from personality traits, childhood experiences, and deeply held values. We might choose to accommodate to others wishes, but we are likely to revert to our set points if left unchecked. If we make 25% change to accommodate to someone else, that’s probably as much as we’ll be able to change.

People thrive in different conditions. The extreme ends of the continuum are unhealthy and cause significant distress. But short of that, one end of the spectrum is no better than the other.

Is There a Right Way to Grieve?

No one gets through life without experiencing a significant loss. Death is a universal human condition. And grief is a normal human experience. When we are knocked off center with intense grief, we want a roadmap. We want guidance on the process. How long will it last? What is the best way to cope? Am I doing it right? There is no handbook. But learning about grief theory may be good for grievers.

Many people are familiar with the stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Some people have interpreted this to mean that grief progresses from one stage to the next in a linear fashion, and that there is a right and wrong way to grieve. But Kubler-Ross did not mean to tell you what you should be feeling and when you should be feeling it. The stages were simply a way to help the griever understand a complex experience. There are many models of grief.

William Worden, PhD, developed a model of grief in which he describes four tasks of mourning. These are to accept the reality of the loss; experience the pain of grief; adjust to an environment with the deceased missing; and withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in other relationships. This last task “is not dishonoring the memory of the deceased and doesn’t mean that you love him or her any less. It simply recognizes that there are other people and things to be loved and you are capable of loving.”

Another model is the Dual Process Model of Grief by Stroebe and Schut. This model identifies two types of stressors we face with loss; loss oriented stressors and restoration oriented stressors. We are loss oriented when we are looking at old photos, yearning, remembering, thinking of what that person would say or do in a situation and reminiscing. We are restoration oriented when stressed with tasks that need to be accomplished without the person who died (like house chores, managing finances, etc.), or when feeling isolated and lonely. This model states that we will oscillate between these orientations and that doing so is a part of a healthy grief process. Coping with our grief at times and seeking respite from grief at times is healthy. It’s okay to experience grief in doses. It’s okay to avoid, deny and repress aspects of grief at times. Go ahead and lose yourself in work, a good book, movies, vacations.

We can’t rush the grief process, but poor choices can complicate our lives further. If grief becomes overwhelming, some people may choose to avoid thoughts and feelings associated with grief by using excess amounts of alcohol or substances. Or, perhaps food will subdue intense emotions. Others will avoid grief emotions with risky behaviors like gambling and spending. These behaviors will create hardship in your life rather than be helpful.

Grief is the natural response when someone you love is taken from your life. Grief cares nothing for order or stages. The truth is, you can’t force an order on pain. You can’t make it tidy or predictable. Remember that grief is as unique as you are.

Addiction Relapse: What Were They Thinking?

It is not easy to battle an addiction and achieve abstinence. It may be even harder to maintain it. Drug and alcohol addiction is considered to be a chronic disease and recovery is a process. Therefore, relapsing is not only possible, but likely. Relapses to substances don’t come out of the blue. Relapses are the consequences of faulty thinking.

Cognitive therapy is a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns and emotional distress. This was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960’s with a premise that thoughts, feelings and behavior are all connected and that individuals can overcome difficulties by identifying and changing unhelpful or inaccurate thinking.

So let’s take a look at faulty thinking that can lead to relapse. A group of people in a recovery support group identified the thoughts they had prior to relapsing and considered what a more reasonable thought would be.
● Some have thought ‘I don’t care anymore’. A more reasonable thought would be ‘I’m feeling apathetic right now but I do care about some things.’
● Many think ‘I can get away with it’ but a reasonable person might think ‘I might get caught and it’s not worth the risk.’
● An unproductive thought is ‘I want to reward myself’ whereas a more realistic thought is that a short term reward can lead to long term negative consequences. Therefore, it’s not really a reward.
● ‘I want to get high to escape reality’ is more likely to create a new harsh reality.
● ‘I’m off probation now, and I can make my own decisions.’ A reasonable person might realize that their best thinking got them into trouble in the first place.
● ‘I can’t withstand cravings.’ The truth is that they don’t give in to every craving and they have a history of withstanding many cravings.
● ‘I miss the thrill of getting high.’ Others would seek thrills in a more reasonable way.
● ‘I can’t stop my thoughts.’ Although there is some truth to this, you are in control of whether you allow yourself to dwell on your thoughts. You are responsible for the outcome of your thoughts.

If you are struggling with an addiction, apply three steps to correct yourself. First, reflect on your automatic thoughts. Second, assess if your thought is reasonable. Third, if your thought is unproductive or unreasonable, replace it with a more reasonable thought. This group of former addicts now stops to consider the consequences of their thoughts. Many of them have been drug free for years. Addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed.

Can We Know If Our Children Will Become Addicts?

Wouldn’t it be great to know who will become an addict? If so, we could provide prevention services to thwart the development of this disease. The disease of addiction is complex and is affected by genetics, environmental causes and other factors. It needs to be treated before it becomes a life-threatening problem.

A person’s DNA holds clues to whether they are predisposed to addiction. It has an inherited component, which means it can run in the family, and a young person needs to be careful. There is no easy diagnostic test but there are certain genes that are more prevalent in people who have an addiction. They are not predetermined to addiction, but they are more vulnerable. One study showed that children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction. (Merikangas, Stolar, Stevens, Goulet, 1998).

I talked with five members of a recovery support group. Although they were aware that addiction has a genetic component, no one in their family had warned them of their personal susceptibility. Why? It’s not the things that people talk about. They were given the message that it was shameful to air their dirty laundry.

But your genes are not your destiny. There’s more to addiction than just genes. Environment, social norms, lifestyle, and history of trauma all impact addiction.

Monkey see, monkey do. Some families use recreational substances together. They approve its use and enable addiction. I’ve seen two generations of family members enter drug treatment together. We’ve all heard of the parent who supplies beer at the graduation party. I’ve been told that drinking and driving on country roads is an acceptable form of entertainment because after all “that’s what my father did when he was a kid.” Sometimes communities turn a blind eye by letting under-aged kids purchase alcohol, or let them drink at bars. Perhaps children learn that alcohol and drugs are an acceptable means of coping with stress. Or, they turn to substances in response to trauma, violence and abuse.

What should you look for if you are a parent? Members of the recovery support group recommend that you look for signs of vulnerability in your child.
● Know your child’s friends, friend’s families and associates for negative influences.
● Also, look for protective influences. It is said that it takes three healthy adults to produce a healthy young man or woman. Do they have a close relationship with another adult that you trust?
● Examine how your child deals with stress. Are they using healthy coping skills?
● Examine how they think. Are they using sound reasoning skills or are they impulsive risk takers? The rational part of the brain is not fully developed until age 25.
● Examine why they may use a substance. Are they seeking fun, companionship, or are they trying to escape? Find an alternative to achieve these ends without turning to substances.
● Have they experienced some kind of trauma? Parental monitoring decreases the likelihood of trauma. They may need counseling.
● Foster your child’s dreams, achievements and aspirations to keep them engaged in healthy activities.

If you have a history of addictions in your family, and you see vulnerability in your child, I recommend that your child has periodic checkups. Have their doctor explain genetic predispositions to them in a way that they can understand. Also, see a counselor periodically
to assess vulnerability to drug and alcohol misuse. Addiction is treatable. Don’t wait until it is out of control.

Why Do So Many Women Drop Domestic Assault Charges?

Far more domestic assault charges are dropped than are prosecuted. Sometimes at the hand of the victims themselves. Victims may make a 911 call for help, but then fail to pursue the charge. They may refuse to cooperate with the prosecutor and may even state that they will lie, and deny the assault, if they are forced to appear in court. The frequency of women dropping charges may cause a reasonable judge to believe that the charge was frivolous. Perhaps they just called police when angry, acted impulsively and later regretted the choice. But was it really frivolous, or is something else going on here?

In my corner of Illinois, I had a conversation with our States Attorney and a judge last week. I asked why our domestic violence program for perpetrators is underutilized. I found that on that day, there were three charges of domestic assault that were dismissed. Why? The victims chose to drop the case.

No doubt that some cases are dropped by the alleged victim because they thought better of it and were not truly fearful for their safety. Perhaps there are a number of other plausible explanations for dropping the charge.

Maybe the victim just wanted to send a warning to their partner and feel they can handle it from there. Or, the love/hate nature of some relationships may cause one to seek help when in danger, but the honeymoon phase gives them a false sense of safety. Or, perhaps the perpetrator has intimidated the victim into silence by threat of an ugly divorce or custody battle.

There were examples of intimidation in the news recently. They shed light on reasons why some women would drop a charge.

In 1995 Bannon was engaged in a domestic dispute culminating in an arrest for domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness. Dissuading a witness is the act of preventing or discouraging a victim from making a report. According to the police report, he did this by grabbing his wife’s phone and throwing it and causing damage to it so that she could not make the call. There were photographs of her injuries. However, she later stated that she dropped the charge because he intimidated her so that he wouldn’t testify against her at a divorce trial. She is quoted as saying that he “told me I had to leave town. That if I wasn’t in town they couldn’t serve me and I wouldn’t have to go to court. He also told me that if I went to court, he and his attorney would make sure that I would be the one who was guilty.” She in fact took their twins and left town. She didn’t return until the attorney phoned her and told her she could come back. When he went to court the report read that the victim was unable to be located and the case was dismissed.

Puzder’s ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and claimed that she was threatened to withdraw a 1990 charge of domestic assault or he would make her pay for this. He vowed revenge. “I will see you in the gutter.” She made a charge that he battered her by striking her violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders and neck, without provocation or cause. He left bruises and contusions and two ruptured discs and two bulging discs. He also unplugged the phone after she tried to call police for help during a 1986 assault. Calls to the police about domestic violence happened over a ten-year period. After the Oprah Winfrey Show, she later rescinded the charge as part of a divorce and child custody agreement. She continues to deny the allegations and reports that she made it up.

Domestic violence is one of the most serious crimes around, but often has less consequence than assault from a stranger. We don’t know why cases are not filed, or are dismissed, or how many result in a plea agreement, or how many result in diversions. But these are not frivolous cases. They may be evidence of ongoing power and control.

Admittedly, the legal system has their hand’s tied when faced with a victim who recants their charge. But holding batterers accountable and sentencing them to incarceration and treatment is a multifaceted problem that needs addressing. I recommend that we hold a town hall meeting to better understand this issue.

Stop the Mental Illness Stigma

A Seattle, Washington resident climbed a tree last March outside Macy’s and refused to come down. When police tried to intervene, they were pelted with pine cones. A hashtag was started and jokes were made that traveled around the world. People thought of him as a harmless oddball. But his mother wasn’t laughing. She informed the public that her son has a mental illness. He has paranoid schizophrenia and she had asked repeatedly for help. She felt hopeless because she had exhausted all avenues of help for him. “They just put these people back on the streets” his mother said. “People are scared of him. He’s paranoid and violent. I’ve pretty much prepared myself for his death.”

In some undeveloped countries the mentally ill lack access to psychiatric care. I’ve read about people being chained to trees rather than hospitalized. In America, our prisons house 10 times the number of mentally ill residents than state psychiatric hospitals. According to a 2012 study, nearly 15% of all prison inmates have signs of psychoses. Some would say that in Illinois, Cook County Jail has become the largest mental health provider. Of the 76,400 people who were admitted in 2012, 45,840 were people with a mental illness.

The tree climber was jailed and held on a $50,000 bond after being charged with malicious mischief, third degree assault, and was ordered to stay away from the tree. The tree had $8,000 worth of damage. The jokes turned to compassion and then to calls for reform. Rather than incarceration, the mentally ill need improved access to care. Incarceration doesn’t cure people with mental illness and they don’t deserve to be mocked.

In Illinois, our state budget crisis has caused the closing of psychiatric facilities. Thus, making it difficult to find appropriate treatment for people in need. As we face a revamp of the Affordable Care Act under our new presidential administration, my fear is that there will be even fewer resources available for our nation’s most vulnerable people.

Marvin Lindsey, CEO of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, states “You put your resources where you think they’re important, and right now, the states’ actions suggest that people with mental health conditions, or people with mental illness, are not really important.” Without adequate care, people who suffer from mentally illness utilize emergency room services, may be homeless or reside in shelters or are jailed. Providing community based mental health care is cheaper.

Mental illness is treatable. One psychiatric hospital has a sign that reads This Is a Hospital Dedicated by the State of Illinois to its People for Their Relief and Restoration – a Place of Hope for the Healing of Mind Body and Spirit Where Many Find Health and Happiness Again.

So here’s the call to action. Stop the stigma, start being compassionate toward people with mental illness, and advocate for improved health care.

The Women’s March Was Cool, But Is It Sustainable?

It is estimated that there were between 3.3 million and 4.6 million people who participated in the Women’s March in the US, and an additional 260,000+ around the world. It was an amazing display of people standing up to make their voices heard for political change and for the protection of the rights, safety and health of women and their families. It was designed to send a bold message to the new government. This peaceful protest created hope and excitement. The air was electrified and adrenalin was pumping as the crowds grew and marched as one. However, the March was a first step toward change, not the last step. Can they keep this momentum going?

Many people experience something similar to a “sugar high” following events such as this. The sugar high fades with time and people tend to return to the status quo. But if the desired changes are to be made, this March has to turn from a moment to a movement. Turning it into a movement happens through hard work and persistence. It means getting involved politically, having a strategy, becoming an advocate, and investing time and energy to create change. Without a clear path from march to power, the protest would have been an exhilarating, but ineffective event.

Let’s face it. We don’t always stick to our good intentions. How many of us have set a New Year’s resolution and found that we failed to keep it? How many times have we joined a fitness club and stopped going? How many diets have we started and given up? We start with determination and promise. But it fades as life’s tasks and routines take over. Of the 20% of the population that sets goals, roughly 70% of them fail.

Robert Chen, at lifehack.org, lists ten reasons why people don’t reach their goals.
1. Creating Vague Goals: Your goals are unclear. He recommends that you make your goals measurable, achievable, realistic and give yourself a deadline.
2. You Lack a Higher Purpose: Without a higher purpose the excitement and motivation wear off.
3. Procrastination: If you don’t get started, you won’t achieve your goal.
4. Not Taking Responsibility: He recommends that you own up to not reaching your goals. You are in control and have the responsibility for follow-through, or it’s failure.
5. Listening To People Who Discourage You: Keep your eye on the prize and ignore the naysayers.
6. Starting Too Many Projects: You can’t do everything. Finish the projects you started.
7. Being Negative: Negativity will sap your optimism.
8. Being Selfish: Most big projects require the help of others. Join in and connect with others who share your values and pursuits.
9. Surrounding Yourself with People Who Don’t Reach Their Goals: You are the sum of the top five people in your social circle. Choose your circle of influence carefully.
10. Watching Too Much TV (or social media): Pick up a book or tackle one part of your project that gets you closer to your goal.

When millions of people get out of bed and drive, fly or ride to a rally something noteworthy is happening. They want change, are motivated and are poised for action. Their next step is goal setting followed by hard work and persistence. I hope they don’t give up.

Mob Mentality

Last week I wrote about the four young people who tortured a special needs man and created a Facebook Live video of it in Chicago. The article was titled “Are We Raising a Generation of Sociopaths?” The answer for many is yes. Society can contribute to why a person takes on antisocial tendencies. In that article I stated that half of the cause of sociopathy is inherited. The other half is a mix of environmental factors. One such environmental factor is group dynamics. The study of group dynamics helps us understand how people can be influenced to commit acts of terror.

What are the odds that you would find four people who would agree to commit such a heinous crime? Apparently, it is not unusual for groups of people to reinforce each other in a negative direction.

We all have an individual identity and a social identity. Our personal identity is defined by our individual qualities and attributes. Social identity is defined by group membership and satisfies our need to belong. We naturally compare our group to other groups. However, we don’t always make objective comparisons. As a result, we tend to view our group as better and we emphasize the positive qualities of our own group. Individuals tend to show favoritism toward their own group, and make negative reactions toward other groups. This can result in prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. Being in a group, makes some people lose touch with their personal moral beliefs, particularly when there is an “us” versus “them.”

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin coined the term “group dynamics” to describe the positive and negative forces within groups of people. Individual behaviors are influenced by the presence of others. Groups can change individual members by prompting them to change their attitudes and values to the consensus of the group. When individuals are members of a group they sometimes engage in behaviors that they would never engage in if they were acting individually. This type of influence can be useful in the context of work and sports but the influence of groups can also create extremely negative behaviors such as what occurred in the Holocaust and Rwanda.

Dr. Wendy James, PhD, made an interesting analogy. “One dog may bark at you but it’s more likely that a pack will attack you.” Similar to dogs operating in a pack, human society is organized by herd behavior. Our instincts are heightened by group influences. We lose control of our usual inhibitions and take on aspects of a group mind. This can lead to a mob mentality. The larger the group, the greater the amplification of that group behavior. If the group behavior is violent, the larger the group the more magnified the violence. If the group behavior is non-violent, the more magnified is peace and order.

Many people believe they are not responsible for violent behavior when part of a mob because “everyone was doing it.” When in a group, people tend to lose self-awareness and are more willing to engage in dangerous behavior. When they believe that their behavior cannot be traced back to them, they are more likely to break social norms.

So what’s the lesson here? Maintain your best judgment and use reason when involving yourself in groups. Consider whether the group’s behavior aligns with your personal values. A healthy use of group dynamics is to participate in groups to influence people or policies in a pro-social direction such as marathons and political action groups. Be mindful of creating positive change.