A Psychologist Speaks On Mob Mentality Of Campus Protests

College campuses across the US have been occupied by radicalized students, doing the bidding of the Islamic Republic of Iran and their proxy, Hamas. Students claim that they are protesting the Israeli government’s treatment of Gazan civilians, but their true intentions are shown by the unchecked excesses of their movement. When a student holds up a sign that reads “Al-Qasam’s next targets” in front of Jewish students singing “HaTikvah,” it becomes clear that the aim of these students is the annihilation of the Jewish people, in Israel and abroad.  

The cancellation of the Columbia commencement ceremony is the most recent example of the pattern of university administrations caving to the demands of privileged, violent students who fight to retain their anonymity by covering their faces with sunglasses and keffiyehs, turning away reporters, and the now-ceremonial donning of the N-95 mask. The message is clear: These students want to call for the extermination of an international population, they want to do so anonymously, and as a rule, they want to do so with no consequences. Johanna King-Slutzky called for “humanitarian aid” to be delivered to the students in the form of DoorDash deliveries, and asked “do you want students to die of dehydration and starvation or get severely ill, even if they disagree with you?… I mean, it’s crazy to say because we are on an Ivy League campus, but this is like basic humanitarian aid we’re asking for. Like, could people please have a glass of water?” 

At this point, you have likely seen these images and videos, watched in disgust, and then sent it out to your friends so they can share in our group condemnation of the horrific situation at our universities. Intemperate campus protests are, at this point, a time-worn tradition. Students latch onto a cause, invite their friends, skip class, and attract media attention. The last ten years of college campus protests have been mainly focused on issues of racism, cultural insensitivity, and the insistence that black voices are being stifled. These protestors often engaged in broad statements about white people, starting with complaints about people who were local to them, but then frequently generalizing their claims of racism to the entire state or country. As always, the quiet minority of protestors with the most radical claims were the most frequently covered by media sources, and their extremism undermined any valid points or requests that their more cogent counterparts may have made. 

As a Jew, I keep on thinking of an important article written by Bari Weiss in 2020. “Stop Being Shocked.” She writes: “So let me make my purpose perfectly clear: I am here to ring the alarm. I’m here to say: Do not be shocked anymore. Stop saying, can you believe. It’s time to accept reality, if we want to have any hope of fixing it.” As a psychologist, I believe that a careful look at a few factors explains the current situation on campus. A mixture of psychology and theology explain the protests, the excesses, the administration’s surrender and outright support.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a prolific mathematical statistician and essayist, writes that the outcome of most people looking to be flexible and accommodating of the wants and needs of others leads to a reality where the greatest and most jarring changes are implemented by a small, intransigent minority. In an essay called “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority,” he explains that a minority of any population, as small as three or four percent of a group, can force a sizeable group to submit to their preferences. “Further,” he explains, “an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority.” Taleb goes on to explain that as long as members of the intransigent minority are willing to be the vanguard of a movement, and take on the public pressure and consequences attendant to such an extreme position, many others with less information, passion, and focus will follow them. 

Someone who marched for racial justice for years, seeing that “Free Palestine” is the new “current thing” will join with their friends as a way to minimize social rifts. Under the cover of anonymity, crowds of students, previously dispassionate about the Israel/Palestine topic will show up by the dozens. Once they have arrived, camped out overnight, they will not be swayed by the violent language for two reasons. Firstly, they are under the impression that they are fighting against a tyrannical, Nazi-like government. Secondly, they will view the fact that they have now joined and been a part of this as a justification enough for them to stay. 

This is a social psychology phenomenon known as the “justifying effort.” It is the reason new recruits to fraternities suffer and later perpetuate the embarrassment and degradation involved in their initiation. Now that they have suffered the degradation, others who join must go through it as well in order to be full members. In the same way, those who couldn’t stomach cries of “globalize the intifada” and “go back to poland,” simply left the protest. Further, anyone who can’t take the intensity of the anti-semitism kept their voices of dissent quiet, didn’t post their disagreement with their peers on social media, for fear of being called a Nazi Zionist. Given the rule of the Dictatorship of the Small Minority, the voices of the majority have been silenced. 

The above explains why the majority of students, who do not wish death upon their peers, have remained silent. Still, the extreme rhetoric begs the question: within the groups of organizers and true Hamas-sympathizers, how did students arrive at the rhetoric they are now embracing? Why not just call for a ceasefire? Why lump all Jews into this? If I were a fly on the wall of the rooms where they were planning these protests and preparing their signs, I imagine I’d see two processes studied in social psychology at work. 

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in 1951 exploring the extent to which individuals would conform to a group’s opinion, even when it contradicted their own perception. Participants were asked to match the length of lines, with one line clearly matching a reference line. However, when confederates (employees of the researcher, posing as experiment participants) purposely gave incorrect answers, many participants conformed to the group consensus, even when they knew it was wrong. Asch’s research highlighted the powerful influence of social pressure on individual behavior and the tendency to conform to group norms, even at the expense of one’s own judgment. This is the converse of the rule of the intransigent minority. The rule of the intransigent minority states that a determined small group of individuals will change the norms for a much larger group. Asch found that a large group can, with no persuasion whatsoever, cause a dissenting group member to change their judgment. In a room where a majority of individuals believe that campus protest rhetoric should be extreme and intemperate, some more moderate planners of the events may have just immediately given in to the pressure of group conformity, without even voicing their doubts. 

To complete this trifecta, the findings of James Stoner shine a light on the reason that this groupthink leads to risky aggressive behavior.  In his experiment, participants were asked to individually estimate the riskiness of various hypothetical decisions. Then, participants were divided into groups and asked to discuss the decisions as a group. After the discussion, participants were asked to reassess the riskiness of the decisions. Stoner found that group discussions tended to amplify individuals’ initial inclinations towards risk or caution, leading to more extreme decisions. 

Taken together, these three findings in social psychology clarify the natural roots of what we are seeing. We do not operate according to the rules of nature. If the existence of the Jewish people were a natural phenomenon, we would be extinct and hardly mentioned by history books. We would be the “Ancient Hebrews” who predated Jesus and were quickly swallowed up by intermarriage, assimilation, and loss of common identity, language, and land. Yet we remain. Our existence is supernatural, we live only by the will of Hashem, and for that reason, i believe that while we can explain the campus protests, the war, October 7th, and the impending conflict with Iran in a naturalistic light, we are better served viewing all of these events as supernatural, and determining that if supernatural evil can happen to us, it means we must respond with supernatural unity, kindness, and devotion to our Jewish identity and our relationship with Hashem. 

We’ve just finished telling the story of our exodus from Egypt. In the Torah, the passage says: “And Pharaoh drew near, and the Israelites lifted their eyes, and there were the Egyptians marching after them, and they were very frightened, and the Israelites cried out to Hashem” (Exod. 14:10) The Hebrew words for “Pharaoh drew near” do not translate directly, the word “hikriv,” does not mean “drew near.” It literally means “caused closeness.” As Pharaoh approached and trapped the Jews between the sea and his army, he caused closeness, which we see in the next line- “they were very frightened, and they cried out to Hashem.” When we see these young, clueless students, disconnected from their own better judgment, blindly following the leaders, almost all of whom are funded either by aggressive, civilization-ending donors, or by the Muslim Brotherhood themselves, let’s try to see them as hikriv. Let’s watch them sputter, degrade themselves, embarrass themselves, and hug our brothers and sisters closer. 

If you found this content meaningful and want to help further our mission through our Keter, Makom, and Tikun branches, please consider becoming a Change Maker today.


Contact formLeave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts

Anxious About Antisemitism? Try This

Yom HaZikaron: 24 Shiva Houses in 7 Months

Previous post

I Went To Bear Witness At The Camps; Poland Was Disgustingly Beautiful

Next post

Yom HaZikaron: 24 Shiva Houses in 7 Months

We’ll Schlep To You

In Your
Inbox Weekly