In the deadliest incident in 25 years, more than 1000 people are dead and over 900 injured during the last rituals of the Hajj, the Islamic annual pilgrimage that takes place each year in Saudi Arabia. The stampede occurred during a ritual called “stoning the devil” on Thursday, with some pilgrims saving their entire lives in order to participate. The event was held in a tent city about two miles from the holy site in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca. More than 2 million pilgrims attend the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage is a requirement of Islam that all Muslims make the pilgrims at least once in their lives.
The scene revealed after the fact was brutal. Piles of bodies, the dead lying on the living, were pictured in footage. Workers pulled away dead bodies to try to free those still alive amongst the piles of the dead. Video captured shouts amongst the rabble of pilgrimage attendees as the tragedy occurred.
The ritual itself reenacts when Prophet Abraham rejected the devil’s temptations by stoning him. Pilgrims throw stones at three pillars in reenactment of this sacred event. During this year’s ritual there was a surge in the crowd as the group was walking toward one of the pillars. The surge caused many people in the crowd to fall causing many to get trampled.
This isn’t the first stampeded during the Hajj. There have been many other tragedies causing hundreds of deaths. Although this was the deadliest disaster since 1990, when 1426 died. Stampedes at the site have happened repeatedly with 262 killed in 2006, and hundreds more killed during the 80s and 90s. Although the Saudi government completed renovations after the disaster in 2006 in order to create a roomier atmosphere at the site, the stampede still occurred and killed over 1000. Authorities stated that pilgrims crushed together at two right angles to one another causing the stampeded and the deaths.
The psychological concepts of groupthink and herd behavior may help us understand how these disasters happen. Humans, at their core, are a social species. When there are large groups of individual humans begin acting like a unanimous group. Irving Janis (1972) described groupthink as what happens when a group of people begin to think similarly when members desire for unanimity are greater than their desire to realistically evaluate their situation and become a cohesive in-group.
There are three conditions that need to be met within groups for group think to occur. The first requirement is a group that is highly cohesive. The pilgrims in the disaster all wore white as part of the ritual and were united in celebrating a religious ceremony where they were all focused on completing the same activity (throwing the stones at the pillar during the reenactment). The second condition required for groupthink to occur is structural faults such as insulation and homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology, lack of procedures or norms for what’s going on, and a provocative situation causing stress (Aldag & Fuller, 1993). All of the pilgrims attending the ritual shared in the same faith. The pilgrims were also isolated on the road leading to the reenactment site, where the tragedy occurred. And according to initial reports there were four times as many Iranians as any other nationalities. The last condition for groupthink was also met with pilgrims feeling the push of the crowd as an stressful external threat to their safety. Stressful situations induce people to stop searching for alternatives, inattention, distortion of warning messages (like screams to stop or help), Although most groupthink situations only require two of three conditions to be met, this tragedy appears to have met all three conditions.
Groupthink directly results in individuals overlooking their own good judgment and participating in inappropriate behavior (Myers, 2012) due to the overestimations of the group, like assuming that the group of pilgrims in front of you know what’s going on. Essentially, the pilgrims started to think as one social unit due to similarities in the experience they were having and succumbed to the stress of the situation and stampeded. This is similar to what happens in the animal kingdom in herds. Animals herds will often occur due to an external threat (think about a cattle stampede occurring because of rowdy cowboys), happen to a single animal species (homogeneity and similarity). In psychology, herd behavior is about “following the crowd” and describes behavior that persists even when the individuals that make up that group receive alternate information indicating that the group is wrong (Banerjee 1992, 798). So even if individual pilgrims thought they shouldn’t be pushing forward, the pressure of the situation and the crowd may have caused the herd behavior and impeded individual decision making.
Aldag, R.J. & Fuller, S.R. (1993). Beyond Fiasco: A Reappraisal of the
Groupthink Phenomena and a New Model of Group Decision Processes. Psychological Bulletin, 111 (3), 533-552.
Banerjee, A.V. (1992). A Simple Model of Herd Behavior. The Quarterly Journal of
Economics, 107 (3), 797-817.
Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Dr. Ashlee Greer, Ph.D. is an intuitive life coach, writer, and former psychologist. She helps people chuck the nonsense rules they thought they had to live by, to follow their true desires and passions, to drop the habitual self-judgments and to engage life with purpose and authenticity.