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A Psychological Perspective on the Insurrection of January 6th, 2021

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

January 6th, 2021, the day of the insurrection at the Capitol, should forever be a day of mourning for our nation. To say that this is a day that “will live in infamy” is an understatement. To think that our democracy and republic was attacked by a mob of our own citizens, not by terrorists or foreign countries, is still shocking and abhorrent to me. To realize that this mob was incited by elected leaders on the basis of misinformation and lies only makes it more horrific. I am still sorrowful about those terrible events, especially for the Capitol Police who sacrificed themselves to protect Congress, and for the lawmakers whose lives were truly threatened.

Not only am I sorrowful, but I am fearful that such events could happen again. This is one of many reasons I am running for the state legislature—to be a rational legislator who protects free and fair elections, who supports the police who defend the Constitution and the election process, and to stand against attempts to inflict the rule of authoritarianism on us.

Why am I in fear, you may ask? Surely such atrocities could never again occur. But, if we analyze, from a psychological perspective, the mob mentality that caused this grievous threat to democracy, it is clear that the same ingredients and group processes could still operate today. All it takes is authoritarian leaders who whip disenfranchised people into a frenzy, by pretending to actually care about these people and feeding them lies, disinformation, and inflammatory rhetoric.

The group and individual processes that contribute to a mob mentality are well known to psychologists, who have studied them for years. This is a sampling of the relevant theoretical factors that have been extensively researched:

a. Risky Shift: groups tend to make riskier decisions than individuals.

b. Deindividuation: people feel safer acting out in a group due to perceived anonymity

c. Confirmation Bias: seeking out and crediting only that information that fits one’s pre-existing beliefs

d. Group Think: conformity to group norms rather than using individual judgment

e. Need for Affiliation: drive to belong in a group with similar beliefs and purpose

The resolution of the myriad of factors that culminated in the January 6th insurrection would take much wisdom and years of effort. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, several factors strike me as significant. First, we must, at the governmental level, try to understand and reach those who are so disenfranchised that they can be duped by authoritarian leaders. Secondly, we must guard against electing politicians who seek the power and influence of the office for their own benefit, which leads them to exploit and manipulate the vulnerability of their followers. We then must guard against such leaders installing minions who will subvert the cause of democracy at local levels, not just federal. And, finally, we need to apply our psychological knowledge of these group processes to predict problems, prevent escalation, and defuse mob situations. We can use psychological science pre-emptively, along with having specially trained crisis teams at the ready.

To conclude, my sadness at the deep divides of political extremism, which seems far worse in the past six years than in my previous experience, has led me to run for office as a moderate Democrat. With moderation comes the capacity for rational consideration of alternative points of view, which then allows for judicious compromise and working together in a bipartisan manner. Elected leaders, in my opinion, have an added ethical obligation to lead by positive example rather than manipulating and dividing people for their own benefit. I hope you will support me in becoming a public servant who represents the best interest of Texans, in House District 63 and across the state.

Editorial by H. Denise Wooten, PsyD

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