Some of the most graphic images of recent times have come from the rioting sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The sight of rocks and sticks smashing into human skulls evokes primal feelings of horror. These primal feelings are capable of evoking other primal feelings, and when there are enough of these, a total chimpout is possible.
Primatologists have long been aware of the propensity of chimpanzees and monkeys to become over-excited. Because primates are highly social animals, we are susceptible to emotional influence from others of our kind. When one of us feels an emotion, it’s common for others nearby to come to feel it as well. This is true of joy, of anxiety, of sociability – and of rage.
When enough mutual excitement goes through a group of primates, they can appear to lose their minds completely. Certain monkey troops, upon encountering human outsiders, will shriek loudly, retreat to the treetops, and begin to fling their feces at the intruders. Chimpanzee troops can also become extremely aggressive quickly when meeting others.
This mob mindset is biological. Primate troops that quickly became excited and aggressive when observing novel stimuli were better adapted to dealing with threats to their territory or safety. As such, they survived and reproduced more effectively. When in doubt, it’s much better to chimpout than to be caught passive and on the back foot.
It isn’t much different for us hairless primates.
Wise men love to point out that human civilisation is by no means a deeply-rooted institution. No-one can remember who said it first, but it’s often been stated that society is only nine meals away from a revolution. Machiavelli observed that human nature has never really changed from the beginning of history. It seems that, at the bottom of our hearts, few of us are fully convinced that civilisation is a good idea.
For one thing, the human animal is still a primate. Although human brain capacity has rapidly evolved since we split off from the other apes, the architecture of those brains is basically the same. As with the other primates, the human animal evolved to survive in a world where physical threats were common and often demanded immediate and extreme action.
Under enough stress, the brain circuitry that evolved to make us more effective pack fighters on the plains of Africa can spark to life again. Human history has been so violent that the old chimpout circuitry has never gone away. There has never been any real selective pressure against it, because those who could not chimp out kept getting killed by those who could.
Understanding this brain circuitry is the key to understanding when and why chimpouts happen.
The recipe for a chimpout begins with increased excitement on the part of an individual, perhaps because they have spotted or anticipate an enemy. If that individual’s increased excitement becomes contagious, and begins to heighten the excitement of the individuals around them, then it becomes a social phenomenon.
Should the excitement become so great that members of the group start to lose their composure, and then if no leader among them settles them down, a chimpout is underway.
The definition of a chimpout is when all pretence to civilisation is suddenly abandoned by a large group of people. In popular language, a chimpout is a term that describes the onset of mob mentality. It’s when a large number of people become a hooting, hollering horde, the higher functions of their brain having shut down.
Chimpouts tend to be destructive. The rioting that followed the George Floyd killing in May 2020 led to the destruction of dozens of American inner cities. The Parisian chimpouts of 2005 saw thousands of cars set on fire. That veneer of civilisation, thin though it may be, suppresses some very malicious impulses.
Implicit in the idea of chimping out is that one gives vent to one’s basest and most venal instincts. One takes the opportunity afforded by the cover of the crowd to indulge in temptations that one would otherwise resist. This involves actions like throwing bricks through windows, setting cars on fire, looting, robbing and beating people.
Psychologists consider chimping out to be an example of mass hysteria, or mass psychogenic illness. It’s a subset of what is known as herd mentality. Humans are not sheep, but much of the brain wiring that makes sheep behave the way they do is shared with other mammals. Most social animals are capable of chimping out in some sense, but in primates the potential for excitation is much greater.
The primal nature of the chimpout is evident from what triggers them. In Clown World, news of a pedophile gang that raped 1,000 young girls will not cause a chimpout, but if a white Police officer kills a black man in the process of making an arrest, then it’s time to park your car off the street.
The more depressed, desperate and nihilistic a population is, the more liable it is to chimp out. The simple rule is that the less a person has to lose, the more willing they will be to engage in mindless destruction. Young, disenfranchised males, especially low-IQ ones or ones with histories of childhood abuse and neglect, are the most prone to do so.
The nature of Clown World means that the threat of chimpout is ever-present. One lives in dread of the next act of Police brutality, because the social environment is tinder-dry and any spark could cause a flashfire. Worsening economic prospects raise the terrifying prospect of the Chimpout to End All Chimpouts.
This article is an excerpt from Clown World Chronicles, a book about the insanity of life in the post-Industrial West. This is being compiled by Vince McLeod for an expected release in the middle of 2020.
If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2019 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis). A compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2018 and the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 are also available.