The Psychological Complexities of Crowding
The solution of a complex problem seldom yields to a simple solution. Human beings are, as most of us believe, a great deal more psychologically complex than non-human animals. Our individual psychologies are complex, our social psychology is complex, the world we have created has an interwoven and interactive dynamic of a complexity that has yet even to be adequately modeled from a purely mathematical standpoint. Human psychological consequences of crowding can therefore be expected to be a good deal more difficult to identify and understand than those of non-human animals. But despite the added layers and dimensions of complexity, there are evident applicable parallels which the responses of other species to population crowding make clear.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2023. “Rage in America: Why is this Happening?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (1): 46-60. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7xg.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Editor’s Note: Steven James Bartlett’s “Rage in America: Why is this Happening?” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part II. Please refer to Part I. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.
❦ Bartlett, Steven James. 2022. “The Human Refusal to Look in the Mirror.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 46-55.
I have already mentioned a few of the experienced effects of the increased human population that people find immediately noticeable and stressful:
1. Changes that people experience very consciously on a daily basis, among them:
Increased traffic, commuting time, longer lines, increased waiting times in ER and urgent care, decreased availability of medical and other services, increased competition for housing and goods, multiple forms of scarcity, travel congestion, increased pollution in its many forms, and, in the past several years, the numerous stressful consequences of the COVID pandemic, whose spread was spurred by the ease of travel and interaction of our existing billions.
2. Effects of crowding that greatly influence how we feel about ourselves, effects upon the individual’s sense of personal worth within a population of many billions.
In addition to these factors, the early results of animal research by Calhoun and others have yet to form part of our general understanding of the psychological and social effects of our population, which since his time has nearly tripled. A number of these results have not been appreciated for the light they throw on the phenomenon of human rage which concerns us here.
3. The propensity of people when subjected to conditions of crowding to feel a powerful urge for “togetherness.”
This group response—increasingly observed as the human population has doubled and then doubled again over the course of only a single lifetime—has not previously been understood as a reaction to the magnitude of our population increase. But a clear human correlate of the “behavioral sink” observed by Calhoun is to be found in the pronounced need and indeed hunger for increased social togetherness and social interaction sought especially by young people throughout the world, as we’ll see in more detail. Moreover, and in much the same way, it is not difficult to recognize how the pathological drive for group togetherness itself supports and fosters an inward-focused politics of populism.
Calhoun called the intensified group clustering of people “pathological togetherness” because it disrupts an organism’s routine and healthy functioning: In human beings, it brings about a misplaced emphasis and pathologically restricted attention and concern for what other group members think of the individual, what they say about one another, how many people “like” or “follow” the individual—who then judges and rates his or her own personal worth in these terms. Heightened psychological sensitivity to the opinions and evaluations of others becomes tantamount.
4. Behavioral, emotional, and ideological conformity are implicitly and subtly encouraged and also actively promoted, while failures to conform are punished.
Individuals and members of their groups are urged by group pressure to conform to the expectations, interests, values, and tastes of the group in which the individual seeks for the group’s validation. Children especially copy one another’s behavior, but this is true of adults as well. Pathological togetherness leads directly to conformity and resulting copy-cat behavior.
5. Many people have a need and strong urge to stand out from the crowd, to be recognized by one’s favored group as an individual who is special in some way.
American society enshrines celebrity and notoriety, and our media are complicit in giving mass killings and other incidents of violence front-page prominence in the news. The publicity this offers is a pathological route sought after in particular by many enraged young people hungry for group recognition.
In efforts to compensate for a sense of individual devaluation in the midst of our growing human mass, many people, especially the young, have gravitated to social media in which the number of their “followers” gets tallied and the number of “likes” their postings receive is scored. We see a parallel phenomenon in their older counterparts in science and higher education who obsess over the “impact factors” that quantify the popularity of their scientific and scholarly publications, which then are often automatically equated with their importance. The emotional mania of tallying such personal and professional “merit points” has become endemic and destructive.
6. The pathological urge for the comfort and validation of togetherness in valued groups brings with it attendant stress and anxiety.
We increasingly see confirmation of this in the rising incidence of depression and anxiety among the young, and in the rate of suicide among teens, which is often linked to online bullying.
7. Increased violent behavior, especially among young males, but not limited to them.
Evidence of this increasing violence is strong and inescapable: We see it on many fronts, ranging from unmanageable violent conduct in schools, physical and cyber-bullying, school and other mass killings, racial and ethnic attacks and murder, inner-city shootings, violent demonstrations, rioting, destruction of public and private property, and the many other displays of rage.
8. The young especially are targeted in mass shootings in schools.
Here, the lessons learned from crowding among non-human animals are especially relevant, for it is the regular and widespread behavior among other species under conditions of crowding for the young to be killed, and often cannibalized.
9. As has been observed repeatedly in animal populations, increased population density and ease of interaction among members provide the ideal growth medium for the transmission and epidemic spread of disease.
As we have witnessed with the acute stress from the global COVID pandemic, frustrated and enraged behavior is often the result.
10. Increased migration pressures to escape from conditions that result from high population densities, including resource scarcity, lack of educational and job opportunities, economic impoverishment, ethnic and religious persecution, etc.
Here again we recognize the same consequence of crowding that is observed in animal studies: When overpopulated species confront a deteriorating ecosystem, they are often driven to migrate. As human population overgrowth occurs in many parts of the world, migration pressures and acute stress build, impelling more and more people to migrate to other countries, where their growing numbers, in turn, then produce further population stress and its consequence in the form of rage.
These ten categories of emotional response and behavior have their unmistakable common denominator in the human population explosion, in the multiple dimensions and forms of crowding which the human population increase has led to, many of which do not consist purely in overt physical crowding.
Unlike Calhoun’s rat observations, what we see in this human-focused view are psychological and social manifestations of and responses to forms of crowding that are complex, interrelated, and seldom recognized because most are not purely instances of physical crowding.
It is important to emphasize this point: The psychology that has led to rage in America as well as in other countries is not a simple and direct expression of mere physical crowding; to believe this would be to overlook both the intricacy and the subtle dynamics of the psychological and social consequences of our present massive population.
Violent Rage in America: Why Here More than Elsewhere?
The United States has come to be an extreme outlier among the countries of the world when judged by this country’s astronomical incidence and prevalence of mass killings coupled with violence of other kinds. We need to take note of specific factors other than crowding that have added their weight to place America at the top of societies experiencing mass killings and violent behavior. Here are some of those other specific factors:
American society has given permission to violence and made it easily possible for people to obtain guns to carry it out. This has happened in part because of America’s comparatively recent frontier gun-based history, in part because the government has assured Americans of their constitutional right to own guns, in part because Americans continue to embrace violence in their favorite forms of entertainment, and, most recently, in part because many Americans accept and approve of the violent policies and behavior of leaders they admire and choose.
In addition, family life in this country has taken a major hit, thanks in great part to the psychological consequences of the “behavioral sink” offered by social media and the promotion of the social addiction of pathological togetherness, coupled with the resulting bowing to conformity among the young. Family life, good parenting, and mentally healthy conditions for raising a family have all deteriorated as the young gravitate away from their families to seek acceptance and validation from their peers, and as parents attempt to cope with the changed demands, challenges, and frustrations due to population increase. More is involved in the failure of American family life than can be included here. But, in parallel with non-human animals who experience crowding, care of the young suffers severely.
Other countries today are unfortunately also experiencing an explosive increase in violent behavior. But not even close to the scale seen in the United States. Nonetheless, most of the populated-based psychological stressors described in the preceding section apply to other countries. And all have a common denominator in the extremely rapid increase in the human population.
The specific factors that lead the U.S. to stand out in its degree of violence, when judged principally by this country’s incidence of mass killings, are relatively few in number. To recap, they include: a long national history that has accepted gun violence, laws that protect gun ownership and easy access to gun purchases, a society-wide celebrity esteem for those who successfully settle conflicts by violent means, the entertainment preference of American audiences for violent films, video games, and music, and the respect and admiration many Americans have come to bestow on those political leaders who represent aggressive, confrontational, no-nonsense, for-this-country-alone-above-all-others policies.
What this Explanation of Rage in America is and What it is Not
I’ve written this paper for several reasons:
First, because I am gravely concerned about the extreme frequency and severity of violent behavior that is occurring especially in this country.
Second, because it is shocking that there does not exist a public outcry for a comprehensive understanding of why this country is so badly afflicted with violence of all kinds, more than any other industrialized country in the world. This sad state of ignorance about our country’s crisis of violence, and our willingness to ignore that ignorance, is unacceptable and needs to be remedied.
Third, I’m convinced there is an important place for competent individual clinical judgment when we face questions like the one considered in this paper. A century ago, it would have been unnecessary to explain what individual clinical judgment means, but today it has become necessary: Clinical judgment in the traditional sense in which I intend it is an expression of a clinician’s reflective, critical judgment based on years of training, experience, careful observation, and a reflective assessment of diagnostic judgments which that individual has reached in his or her past experience.
Individual clinical judgment in this sense was long relied upon in medicine, and there it referred to the essential ability of a clinician to diagnose medical disorders. Clinical judgment in this meaning has very largely been superseded by diagnostic algorithms applied to laboratory test data. The individual clinician now depends primarily and often wholly on these, and because of that dependency, has come to consider his or her individual clinical judgment in its traditional sense to no longer be reliable or entirely respectable due to the fallibility of individual judgment.
In this paper, I use the term ‘clinical’ in the conventional sense as it applies to clinical psychology in which the cognitive processes and behavior of individuals are studied through observation and sometimes by experimentation. Most clinical work in psychology focuses on individuals, and there it combines diagnosis with treatment designed to result in improvements of some kind. Social psychology similarly is often observation-based with a focus on diagnosing social-psychological problems, and is sometimes undertaken in ways that can identify treatments or interventions capable of leading to desired changes.
In both contexts, ‘clinical judgment’ is the appropriate term to use because in both contexts there is a need for a clinician’s individual judgment based on observations that are capable of identifying a valid diagnosis that can lead to the recommendation of effective remedies.
To be sure, individual judgment is fallible. And equally sure it is that objective laboratory test findings, when processed by mainstream, widely validated, and accepted diagnostic algorithms, remove a significant weight of personal responsibility as well as legal liability from the shoulders of the individual clinician.
Perhaps unfortunately (and perhaps not), not all diagnostic questions can be answered by recourse to laboratory or experimental findings, and not for all questions do there exist recipe-book-algorithms designed to answer them. An important place remains for individual clinical judgment when there is no other way forward. This is the case with the complex and far-reaching question considered in this paper, “Why is there so much rage in America (and in the rest of the world)?”
Given the absence of laboratory and experimental results and validated diagnostic algorithms that apply to society-wide outbreaks of rage, a question of this kind requires a clinical ability to synthesize observations, judge relevance, and recognize patterns where such patterns have been missed by others, patterns that often have been overlooked, overshadowed, or dismissed because they don’t satisfy what other researchers prefer to believe, or because they conflict with interests in which others are emotionally or financially invested.
There are still relatively few researchers in this now immensely populated world of ours who combine many decades of experience and observation about our species’ psychological and conceptual propensities to engage in aggressive and destructive thought and behavior. Such researchers still form a fairly small group, among whom I am but one. Psychological, social, and cognitive observations, and the conclusions I have drawn from these form the basis for the clinical judgment expressed here. The diagnostic judgment involved belongs to the study of individual and social psychology.
The answer to the question which I’ve given in this paper is intended to be only partial, for there are other relevant factors a short publication of this kind is forced to exclude. And like many explanations based on evidence, it is important to recognize that fundamentally the answer I have given expresses a hypothesis, one which can be confirmed or disconfirmed by observing whether future increases or decreases in the psychological and social conditions of crowding are correlated with increases or decreases in America’s rage. To accomplish this will clearly require the passage of a good deal of time.
For the present, we are forced to rely on the standard provided by the cogency of a diagnostic explanation: specifically, whether it successfully connects the dots, whether it offers us a clear, unified understanding we did not have before, and whether it provides us with intelligent guidance for our future behavior.
As I commented earlier, not everyone is open to—or even wishes to have—an understanding of “the big picture.” I am acutely aware of the willfulness and even recalcitrance on the part of many of those whose beliefs are challenged, who will then reject and repudiate results that are incompatible with their preferred beliefs. It is principally to those comparatively few who are capable of questioning what they like to believe, and to those who have already come to recognize some of the fundamental facts I’ve reviewed, that this paper is addressed.
To Summarize this Explanation of Rage in America
The enormous and exceedingly rapid multiplication of the human population during the past century has worldwide psychological consequences due to the interplay of multiple factors. An explanation of rage in America involves many of these as well as additional conditions that are specific and unique to this country. Taken together, the following is what we have learned to explain the many forms of rage we are experiencing in the United States:
• The majority of enraged perpetrators of violence in this country are psychologically normal; they are not psychotic or diagnosably mentally ill.
• Their violence is a psychological and behavioral consequence of little-recognized conditions of crowding brought about by the massive increase in the human population during the past century.
• These directly as well as indirectly felt conditions of crowding lead to acute stress that can take the form of anxiety, depression, aggression against others or against the self through suicide, and outpourings of rage.
• The conditions of population crowding result in social pathologies that impel the young to seek out pathological togetherness and personal validation by their groups.
• Our society gives preeminent attention to celebrity and notoriety, while our media are complicit in providing mass killers with front-page recognition. Among young people who are emotionally starved for group attention, some seek out this pathological route to be noticed and validated.
• The overwhelming emotional need for the approval by the group is magnified by obsession with the electronic technologies which have come to dominate and control the individual’s attention, time, interest, and concern, and which very efficiently and swiftly link together group members.
• Immersion in electronic media through which the needs of pathological togetherness can be met leads to increased conformity to the expectations, interests, values, and tastes of the group in which the individual seeks for group validation.
• The present huge size of the closely interconnected human population encourages the epidemic spread of disease, which often brings with it frustration and enraged behavior.<
• The immense expansion of the world’s population is increasingly leading in many areas of the world to resource scarcity and lack of opportunities, while often exacerbating discriminatory persecution of ethnic and religious groups; these conditions also produce acute stress that lead to rage, and increasingly drive people to attempt to migrate to countries they believe offer more favorable conditions.
• In the United States, as we have seen, psychological, social, and political conditions specific to this country have been set in place that support and encourage violence, often through the use of guns, thanks to this country’s gun-based legacy; these are conditions that lower the social and political barriers to the uninhibited discharge and outpouring of rage.
Despite concentrated attention which 50 years ago was drawn both to the predictable results of human population growth and to its devastating ecological consequences, the central role of unconstrained human reproduction has played virtually no place in the recent frenzy of too-long-delayed discussions and efforts to effect environmental and climate damage control. Instead, what we see are actions which have been set in motion only when the immediacy of pain of a long-anticipated crisis is actually upon us.
The fundamental and key role of our massive and invasive population in producing the climate crisis is a topic systematically avoided by even most climate scientists, as well as by politicians and the public. The topic has become taboo: It disturbs what most of us want to believe and are unwilling to question. We would rather ignore it. “The world was made for the human race: Simply be fruitful and multiply.”
The existence of this taboo makes it all-the-more-difficult for us to recognize that the present human population size is already so massive that the syndrome of acute stress due to varied and complex psychological and physical conditions of crowding is leading to the many virulent outbreaks of rage mentioned in this paper.
The explanation of rage in America offered here is the expression of individual clinical judgment. If that judgment is correct, as the size of the human population continues to increase—and even should its growth rate level off, as some hope—it is to be expected that acute population stress will increase, and along with it, so also should we expect continued outpourings of rage.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2022. “The Human Refusal to Look in the Mirror.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 46-55.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2021. Critique of Impure Reason: Horizons of Possibility and Meaning. Salem, OR: Studies in Theory and Behavior.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2018. “Mismeasuring Our Lives: The Case against Usefulness, Popularity, and the Desire to Influence Others.” PhilPapers https://philpapers.org/rec/BARMOL-2.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2011. Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Bartlett, Steven James. 2006. “The Ecological Pathology of Man.” Mentalities/Mentalités: An Interdisciplinary Journal 20 (2): 1-18. Available from Bartlett, Steven James. 2005. The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas. https://philpapers.org/rec/JAMEP/.
Calhoun, John B. 1962. “Population Density and Social Pathology.” Scientific American 206 (2): 139-149.
Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Fowler, Katherine A., Rachel A. Leavitt, Carter J. Betz, Keming Yuan, and Linda L. Dahlberg 2021. “Examining Differences between Mass, Multiple, and Single-Victim Homicides to Inform Prevention: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System.” Injury Epidemiology 8 (49): 1-16. https://injepijournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40621-021-00345-7. Accessed 12/03/2022.
Hoagland, Hudson. 1964. “Cybernetics of Population Control.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 20 (2): 2-6.
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth : A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates.
Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
 A note to readers who have an interest in epistemology: Whenever in this paper I refer to the “results” or “consequences” of population crowding, I do not have in view a conventional notion of causality, but rather what I have elsewhere called “functional dependencies.” For a detailed analysis of commonly used causal notions and the need to replace them with an understanding of functional relations, see Bartlett (2021: Chap. 23, esp. 23.3, and passim).
 For a discussion of this mania, see Bartlett (2018).