Influencing Group Behavior: Can You Start or Stop a Movement? – Part I

January 31, 2024
By iQ Staff
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Dr. Phil Feldman

For communicators and marketers, understanding the dynamics of group behaviors and decision-making processes is essential to crafting messages that affect change. Phil Feldman, PhD, a seasoned research professor in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studies the intricacies of group behavior as well as strategies for leveraging these dynamics.

In this two-part blog, Dr. Feldman provides a window into the psychological and social factors that shape beliefs and actions within groups.


It seems like viral trends and nationwide movements have increased over the past decade. How are they gaining traction? 

The increase in the speed at which information is spread has given rise to a new phenomenon that I like to call “belief stampedes.” Stampedes occur when people interact with personalized online feeds that create a social reality that is subjectively more important than one that is reality-based. This can lead to the spread of runaway misinformation and false beliefs such as the “Stop the Steal” campaign that culminated in the violent insurrection on the US Capitol on January 6. Belief stampedes are characterized by rapid shifts in opinion. This depends on a lack of reflection or analysis and is a natural occurrence and often happens for rational reasons.


"Today, modern communications technology, mass media and customized news feeds targeting individuals create a hospitable environment for stampede behavior, even across disparate geographic locations."


This behavior isn’t new. A non-physical example of this type of rapid conformity can be seen during the stock market crash of 1929, which can be considered a type of stampede. Panicked brokers rapidly sold their stocks to reduce their financial risk, leading to a massive and rapid decline in stock prices. While the behavior may have seemed irrational and chaotic, it was driven by a rational desire to minimize financial losses. Today, modern communications technology, mass media and customized news feeds targeting individuals create a hospitable environment for stampede behavior, even across disparate geographic locations.


Dr. Phil Feldman provides a window into the psychological and social factors that shape beliefs and actions within groups in his recent book Stampede Theory.


Can a stampede be engineered? If so, how? 

Stampedes can be both dangerous and powerful. While they often occur spontaneously, it is possible to manipulate conditions and create an environment that encourages stampede behavior. It’s worth examining how individuals and groups can force people into stampedes.


1. Spreading Fear and Panic

One of the most effective ways to force people into a stampede is by spreading fear and panic. This can be achieved through rumors, misinformation or even outright lies. For example, the 2005 stampede in Baghdad was triggered by rumors of a suicide bomber in a Shiite procession, resulting in over 900 deaths.


2. Demonizing Outgroups

Another tactic to force stampedes is by demonizing outgroups, creating an "us versus them" mentality. This can be seen in authoritarian stampedes, where leaders manipulate public opinion by promoting apocalyptic scenarios and targeting specific groups as enemies. For example, during the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority was incited to violence against the Tutsi minority through propaganda and hate speech, resulting in a horrific stampede of violence.


3. Exploiting Social Media and News Outlets

In today's digital age, social media and news outlets can be powerful tools for forcing stampedes. By creating a feedback loop between influential figures, their followers and media outlets, it is possible to amplify messages and manipulate public opinion. For instance, the relationship between former President Trump, his social media followers and right-wing news outlets created an environment that encouraged stampede-like behavior, culminating in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.


4. Manipulating Group Dynamics

Group dynamics can also be exploited to force stampedes. By creating conditions that encourage conformity and discourage dissent, it is possible to push individuals towards stampede behavior. For example, the Asch conformity experiments demonstrated that people are more likely to conform to a group's opinion, such as the length of lines on a chart, even if it is clearly incorrect. This tendency can be manipulated to create a stampede in the form of mob behavior, as individuals feel pressured to follow the crowd.


5. Lowering the Threshold for Extreme Behavior

Finally, lowering the threshold for extreme behavior can create conditions that encourage stampedes. This can be achieved by normalizing violence, aggression or other extreme actions, making them seem more acceptable and less shocking. For example, during the Nazi regime in Germany, anti-Semitic propaganda and policies gradually desensitized the population to the persecution of Jews, creating an environment that allowed The Holocaust to happen. Similarly, in the 2011 London riots, widespread looting and arson became normalized as more and more people joined the chaos, creating a stampede of criminal behavior.

Forcing stampedes is a dangerous and unethical practice with a high likelihood of unforeseeable outcomes. However, understanding the tactics used to manipulate mass behavior can help us recognize and resist such attempts. We always need to be aware of the power of fear, the demonization of outgroups, the influence of social media and news outlets, group dynamics and the normalization of extreme behavior.


Can you stop a stampede, aside from letting it run its course?

While belief stampedes can be difficult to stop, there are ways individuals and groups can work together to counteract their spread and promote a more reality-based understanding of the world.


1. Encourage Diversity Injection

One way to stop a belief stampede is by promoting diversity injection, which nudges individuals off the trajectory of a stampede into a world where their information sources are less homogeneous and constrained. This can be achieved by exposing people to different, even random, perspectives and ideas or encouraging them to explore their latent interests and thereby become involved with different communities that are less extreme.


2. Foster Open Communication

Creating an environment where open communication is encouraged can help prevent belief stampedes from taking hold. The dominance of a single viewpoint can make it appear that a group is being forced into a corner and needs to defend itself. Creating communities that support diverse viewpoints is extremely effective in reducing runaway systems like cults that depend on enforcing a single perspective that is aligned with a charismatic leader.


3. Promote Media Literacy

Ongoing efforts to “ambiently educate” people about how to critically evaluate the information they encounter online is crucial in stopping belief stampedes. This includes how to identify credible sources, recognize biases and discern between facts and opinions. By promoting media literacy, individuals can navigate their own path through the digital landscape, rather than depending on groupthink. Though this suggestion sounds easy, it is probably the most difficult. The cognitive load for critical, independent thought is high, and to expect this from people with too much to think about already is expecting a lot. The goal here should not be traditional education, but ongoing ambient efforts.


4. Build Networks That Prioritize Reality-Based Information

Developers and architects of communication systems can play a role in stopping belief stampedes by building networks that prioritize reality-based information. This can be achieved by designing “recommender” algorithms that promote credible sources and fact-checking tools, as well as creating platforms where everyone has the right to speak, but no one has the right to be amplified without merit. By prioritizing reality-based information and not amplifying behavior associated with belief stampedes, these networks can help prevent the spread of misinformation and false beliefs.


5. Support Grassroots Efforts to Counteract Belief Stampedes

Individuals and small groups can work together to counteract belief stampedes by being more generous to each other and those in need. This can include volunteering, donating to causes that promote reality-based information and supporting organizations that work to combat misinformation and false beliefs. By working together, we can help create a more reality-based world and stop the spread of belief stampedes. Examples like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps show that this can work.


Stay tuned to our blog for part 2 of our interview with Phil Feldman, PhD.