On one day every year, the sight of red Santa hats gives the New Yorker a sense of immediate dread. Have I made a grave mistake and wandered into the heart of darkness, the infamous "charity" event that leaves a wake of vomit, costume pieces, fistfights, and angry bartenders? The annual transformation of start-up dudes, law students, social media managers, and other very average bros into an incontinent mob is bizarre. What psychological phenomena explain thousands of normals shouting slurs and fingerbanging Santa's helpers in Duane Reade? Why did that guy flick a burning cigarette into my cab?
The act of donning a hat and red robe is the key to the psychological transformation of the day. A costume is no longer a costume when it is worn by hundreds of people—it is a uniform, a powerful force across nations, teams, and armies with the primary object of unifying the mob. Putting on a uniform means putting yourself in line with the common goals of the group, whether scoring goals, defeating enemies, or crushing beers through your dime-store beard.
A uniform is a shortcut to a prescribed behavior and mental state. Many field studies have found that uniforms tend to increase aggressive acts among the group. The strong forces pulling the elves and I-bankers together also lead to biases against those not in the group—in this case turning the Santa mobs against any unsuspecting New Yorker who happens to stumble into their midst.
The shift in self-image encourages camaraderie, with the North Polesmen toasting to the holiday and to their charity, but unification comes at the cost of deindividuation. As opposed to anonymity, deindividuation is not the effect of being unknown, but of being indistinct, and lacking personal self-awareness. When people lose their private sense of individuality, their behavior becomes more vulnerable to their social context, creating a volatile atmosphere. Consider the classic "costume experiment," which found that participants were less likely to deliver painful shocks to another human if they were wearing a nurse's uniform as opposed to a robe similar to those worn by the Klu Klux Klan. In other words, with a decreased sense of individuality, people are more likely to play the roles presented to them.
What's particularly weird about SantaCon is that Father Christmas is usually a positive icon. But the reputation of the annual event, combined with people's expectations for getting wasted, means the costume itself turns into a negative cue, increasing antisocial behavior.
When the individual's sense of self degrades into this collective identity, people also lose their sense of responsibility. So when a dude in a red suit heckled activists at the anti-police violence march in New York Saturday, shouting that if protesters just kept their hands up they would not be shot, he was dismissed simply as a "SantaCon Bro."
Anecdotally, I've also noticed another phenomenon among these jolly SantaCon revelers, which is their struggle for social distinction. This falls in line with what is known among psychologists as the "Optimal Distinctiveness Theory," which is basically the idea that people try to achieve a balance between fitting in and standing out among the crowd. We all want to be unique, but we still want to be accepted. But how do you assert yourself when you're dressed in exactly the same fat Santa suit as every other douchebag in New York? More importantly, how do you get the attention of that sexy elf shouting along to Bon Jovi in the corner of the bar? Shout for more Fireball and try to act different—i.e. louder and more obnoxious—than everyone else.
SantaCon organizers tried their hardest Saturday to rein in the monsters they'd created, tweeting appeals like "Don't be that Santa," "Don't fuck with KIDS," and "#dontscroogesantacon." But they are fighting an uphill battle. More research is needed, just not around here. Hoboken, maybe. They have great picklebacks in Hoboken.
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