When a 26-year-old woman stood at the edge of a Seattle bridge on Tuesday, contemplating the decision to end her life with a jump, she didn't do so in peace.
"Jump, bitch, jump!" is what she heard from the crowd of motorists at the scene. Other onlookers cursed the woman, who was distraught over a relationship. After all, she had delayed their daily commute.
"The officers that were first on the scene said there were cars that were stopping as they were going by on the freeway, and taunting her to jump," Sgt. L.J. Eddy of the Seattle Police Department Crisis Intervention Team said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. Eddy's team tried to stop the jumper, and ended up pulling her out of the water after she leaped from the bridge. (The woman is listed in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, with a spinal fracture and chest and abdominal injuries. She is expected to recover fully, according to Associated Press reports.)
Cruel, yes. Unusual? Experts say no.
Losing Your Sense of Individuality
Such behavior occurs quite naturally to us in certain situations. Psychologists have a name for it: deindividuation.
Scott Plous, a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, calls the mob reaction seen during the Seattle suicide attempt a classic case of deindividuation, or losing your sense of individuality. He says that being anonymous or being part of a large group will often lead to behavior that, under normal circumstances, is not socially acceptable.
Eddy concurs that this is not an unusual phenomenon.
"I have been out to incidents of jumpers on ledges in high-rises and things like that, and there is frequently someone in the crowd, I think because of that anonymity, who will yell to 'jump' or 'go ahead' or something like that," she said.
Large groups,explains Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, not only dilute a sense of individuality, but also lessen accountability.
"In a large group, diffusion of responsibility occurs so the individual experiences less responsibility on their own," he said.
The other factor Bushman believes may have been responsible for the Seattle group's behavior is a heightened sense of arousal.
"Physiologically, the presence of other people, heat, any unpleasant event — i.e., the frustration of being delayed three hours during a rush-hour commute — can increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior," said Bushman.
The problem with this heightened sensation, he says, is it reduces our cognitive capacities — our ability to think rationally.
Dr. Michael Vergare, psychology professor at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, says the group's aggression may have been brought on by plain old selfishness.
"These people were feeling anger; she was getting in their way, so they distanced themselves from her dilemma," said Vergare. He called it a classic case of taking care of our needs.
Vergare says such Lord of the Flies-type behavior is really a defense mechanism.
"There is a certain distancing and dehumanizing of certain situations so we can master them. If we ignore the humanity, we become less humane, less civil," he said. "We depersonalize — that's how we protect ourselves."