- People in a group setting develop a shared identity and foster “deindividuation”—the loss of sense of oneself as an individual.
- Orders by authorities can prompt people to engage in harmful actions, and, over time people may come to identify with those giving the orders.
- Gradual escalation makes it far easier for people to engage in harmful behavior.
Like most Americans, I watched the events of January 6th in horror and disbelief. But as a social psychologist, the events of that day are, sadly, quite easy to understand, as I described to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol earlier this year in testimony summarized below.
Shared Identity in Group Settings
One of the most consistent findings in the empirical research in psychology is that people will do things in a group setting that they would never do on their own. Why? One explanation is that people in a group feel anonymous—and, thus, believe they won’t be held responsible for their actions. For example, an analysis of violence in Northern Ireland found that people wearing disguises—masks, hoods, or other clothing to obscure their faces—engaged in more acts of vandalism, harmed more people, and inflicted more serious physical injuries.
Groups also create what is called “deindividuation”—the loss of sense of oneself as an individual. When people lose touch with their own moral standards and forget who they really are, the normal constraints against deviant behavior are removed—and the larger the crowd, the worse the behavior. An analysis of lynch mob behavior in Georgia between 1882 and 1926 found that, although all of the lynchings resulted in death, larger crowd sizes predicted increases in violence, such as burning, hanging, and/or beating the victim.
Unfortunately, the events of January 6th were in many ways a perfect storm of the factors contributing to problematic group behavior: The group was large, and many people wore masks, fostering a sense of anonymity. Others wore hats or shirts or carried flags, all of which served to create a sense of shared identity. This attire wasn’t random but, rather, was intentionally chosen to foster a common identity. These factors all increased the likelihood of problematic behavior, because they lead people to lose a sense of who they are and their distinct identity.
The Role of Leaders in Prompting Group Behavior
Another key finding in social psychology is that leaders can prompt good people to engage in harmful actions, as demonstrated first by Stanley Milgram’s infamous study showing that most people are willing to obey an authority’s orders to shock an innocent victim. One central factor explaining such obedience is the authority figure’s willingness to assume responsibility for any negative outcomes. In line with this view, a detailed analysis of the utterances of participants in one of the recent replications of the Milgram study revealed that those who felt responsible for their actions were more likely to resist the orders. The tendency to seek absolution on that basis can also be found repeatedly in real-world situations, from the American soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib to business executives who engage in corporate fraud.
People may also come to identify with those who are giving the orders, at which point they may believe that their actions are serving a worthy purpose. In fact, participants who identified with the experimenter in the Milgram study—and saw their actions as making a valuable contribution to the pursuit of scientific knowledge—followed the orders to deliver shocks far longer.
This explanation provides insight into some of the factors that led to the devastating effectiveness of the policies of the Nazis. Some people were not simply begrudgingly or numbly following orders; instead, they identified with the dangers that Hitler was articulating, shared his muscular patriotism and nostalgia for a simpler past, embraced his hatred of outsiders, and bought into his vision of a racially pure society.
Similarly, as historian Heather Cox Richardson describes in The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1886-1901, during Reconstruction, wealthy white Americans were often quite adept at inspiring like-minded lower-income whites to actually carry out aggressive and, at times, lethal acts against Black Americans, while simultaneously being able to maintain plausible deniability for their own role in perpetuating violence. This tendency to identify with those giving the orders is especially common in the case of charismatic religious or political leaders.
These findings also help explain the events of January 6, 2021. For years, Donald Trump had encouraged his supporters to engage in violence and offered to take responsibility for any consequences. On January 6th, his instructions became clearer. He started that day with a tweet calling for Republicans to fight, followed by tweets instructing Republican leaders to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.
At noon, Trump spoke at length about the supposed election steal, telling the crowd at a rally, “We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.” When members of the crowd chanted “Fight for Trump,” he responded “thank you,” conveying that he was in fact endorsing a fight. After Vice President Mike Pence released a statement describing his role in overseeing, not overturning, the electoral count, Trump tweeted that Pence "didn't have the courage to do what should have been done.” All of these statements provided clear directions to followers about what the right course of action should be: storming the Capitol.
The Role of Gradual Escalation
One final factor that helps explain people’s problematic behavior in group settings is the role of gradual escalation. In many cases, people start by engaging in a relatively small—but wrong—act, and may explain this small act away by seeing it as not such a big deal. However, once you take a small step in the wrong direction, it becomes hard to change course (the so-called “boiling frog effect”).
The power of gradual escalation helps to explain why most participants in the Milgram study fully followed the orders of the authority figure to deliver dangerous shocks to an innocent person, which started with what they were told was only a very small—15-volt—charge. But the gradual escalation of intensity meant that they had no easy way to justify a decision to stop giving shocks later on, as their apparent intensity escalated into increasingly dangerous territory.
The power of gradual escalation also helps explain the events of January 6th. In April 2020, protesters with rifles entered the Michigan State Capitol building to demand an end to the restrictions Governor Gretchen Whitmer had put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In October 2020, members of a militia group plotted to kidnap the governor, following Trump’s public denouncements of various COVID-19-related restrictions she’d implemented. In December 2020, protestors stormed a meeting at the Oregon State Capitol, chanting “let us in” and “arrest Kate Brown” (the governor of Oregon), shattering glass doors into the Capitol, and spraying officers who intervened with various chemical agents.
Trump himself had previewed his goal for January 6th in the weeks leading up to the day. On December 19th, he promoted the rally several times by tweet, including, “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6. Be there, will be wild!” This description conveyed an intent not for a peaceful protest, but rather some type of chaotic and extreme (potentially unlawful) behavior. Not surprisingly, his supporters understood his intent and responded accordingly. On January 1st, one of his supporters tweeted “The calvary [sic] is coming, Mr. President!,” which Trump endorsed with a tweet describing that response as “A great honor!”
Did President Trump give a direct order to his supporters to storm the Capitol and hang his vice president? No. But the events of January 6th didn’t start that day: He laid the groundwork for those events weeks before, and his supporters planned, practiced, and prepared accordingly. And I think the former president knew that and counted on it.