Have you ever lost yourself in a crowd, felt a sense of awe or even felt your individual identity dissolve as a part of a group? I felt this sensation wash over me on Sunday as I stood in the hotel lobby of the downtown Marriott in Philadelphia when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. The people of the city took to the streets and came together amidst tears of joy when their team beat the Patriots, 41 to 33.
I felt like I was part voyeur and part chaperone, standing by and watching as people went wild. The energy was intoxicating and you couldn’t help but smile ear to ear as the crowd celebrated the event with a shared sense of meaning. There was happiness, joy and a feeling of elation. Strangers come together in song and repeating each others’ words, finding without hesitation their shared sense of humanity in the Eagles’ first ever Super Bowl victory. Philadelphia’s mayor spoke of how long city residents had waited for this moment, and he urged them to celebrate.
While most of the city stayed in joyful celebration, parts of the city slid into collective chaos. The city became awash in looting and vandalism. People were injured when they climbed onto and crashed through the awning at the Ritz Carlton hotel, a car was overturned and the glass door at Macy’s smashed to shards of glass. Later I learned that the police had greased traffic poles prior to the game to deter people from climbing, expecting that fans would be unable to control themselves in the event of a win. They had prepared for riots.
Being wired for connection is a part of our nature. Years ago, we humans couldn’t have survived long if we didn’t stick together, and so social connection is a part of our evolution. We long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and there are many health and happiness benefits related to being connected. Whether it is losing ourselves in service, engaging in a community, or cheering on our favorite team with other fans, being a part of a shared experience helps give us a sense of meaning.
But how is it that celebration can so suddenly turn into tragedy? The term “hive mind” has been used by psychologists and sociologists to describe a sort of collective consciousness, a process in which a group of people comes together to think and act as a community, share experiences and resources. It is also characterized by loss of a sense of individuality and accountability. The energy of a crowd can quickly carry it in one direction or another, without the conscious decision of each group member. Neuroscientists have indicated that our brains may operate in a similar way. Our neurons are like buzzing bees that process vast amounts of information; our decisions can just as easily be rational as they are emotional.
As I watched the videos of Eagles Fans “trust diving” from ledges into the crowd I couldn’t help but think of how the chemical oxytocin impacts our body. It’s a chemical that gets released in our body when we feel connected and close to others. It is referred to as the chemical of trust and bonding. I wasn’t surprised by the behavior. Mixing oxytocin with adrenaline and lots of alcohol can clearly lead to trouble.
Is there a way to productively harness the power of the “hive mind”? Could there have been a way to keep the bees of the hive rejoicing without harming the city and bystanders? What if people put their collective energy to use and turned it into beauty?