Mob mentality in the chamber?

Words by Geoff Paine

Some people have asked what’s going on with the Myplace groups invading some councils around Melbourne. Mobs of angry people have recently turned up at some council chambers and names are being called; conspirators, cookers,  sov-citz and paedophiles. What’s going on, and why now?

Full disclosure: while I am a Nillumbik councillor, and I work at Monash University with behavioural scientists, I’m not writing on behalf of either Council, or Monash. These are my personal observations and speculations about groups seeking to disrupt and diminish the workings of local government.

Humans are prone to following patterns, and to look for patterns in others.  If we don’t know what something means, we invent a meaning.  If there’s too much information, we choose the bits that suit us.  If we’re unsure of a new experience, we quickly trawl through our memory to try and explain it.  These mental shortcuts, or biases, helpfully speed up our decisions, but they also mean we’re constantly jumping to conclusions. 

Confirmation Bias is our tendency to look for things we already agree with.  Most of us seek out (and stick with) opinions, media, political views and groups whose values we share. Social media algorithms fuel this.  It’s comforting, but it also means we avoid bumping up against other points of view that challenge us.  It can mean we divide the world into ‘us and them’, ‘truth and fake news’. 

The Sunk Cost Bias means the more we commit to something, the harder it is to stop.  Whether we invest time, money or emotion, we’ll stick with something because of what we’ve sunk into it, not what we get out of it.  We’ll sit through boring movies, stay at jobs we hate or hold on to gadgets we don’t use because of what they cost us, not the benefit we’ll get from them.  

If a group in the community are angry (for whatever reason), they’ll find others with that shared view and stick with it.  If they don’t agree with the evidence behind it, they’ll declare it fake news.  If they say this publicly, and even turn up to council meetings to shout it out, they have locked themselves into a pattern that is incredibly hard to reverse.  We hate admitting being wrong, even though our life experience changes our beliefs.  From the Tooth Fairy to monsters under our beds to ideas on raising children (before we actually have kids), no one goes through their entire life with the same set of beliefs.  If they did, we’d consider them insane. 

Current conspiracies include the 20-Minute City concept (where people can access work, school and shopping needs within 20 minutes of their homes) as being a way of turning local suburbs into open air prisons, and councils using face-recognition cameras to track resident’s movements.  I’ve had questions about both.  If we tell people these ideas are ridiculous, they take offence and see any denial as confirmation of their suspicions, which begs the question – why ask for answers you won’t believe anyway?  

Nillumbik has been lucky so far.  Our visitors are more likely to take notes than interrupt proceedings, but there’s a point where anger turns to action.  Let’s hope cooler heads will prevail in this overheated climate, and that we can take some time to think before we jump to conclusions.  It’s very hard to jump back.