Crowd psychology and unfamiliar weather may have played a big role in rowdy behavior on University Street during snowball fight

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Posted by Julianne Parker on Monday, Dec. 9 at 8:00 am.

Sherwin Simmons was on his way to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to donate some of his old paintings on Friday afternoon when he drove his gray sedan down University Street. The retired art history professor was late, but drove slowly on the snow-covered asphalt. As he neared Johnson Lane, he noticed the street was lined with students — dozens of them. They shouted and started closing in on him, surrounding the car and forcing Simmons to stop.

University of Oregon student Liana Lis was at the snowball fight that UO football players organized to celebrate the first snowfall of the year. She witnessed as participants redirected their aim — rather than chucking snowballs at each other, they focused on passing cars, bicyclists and pedestrians traveling down University Street.

“At the time I had been in the snowball fight it was cool because the people who were there wanted to participate,” Lis said. “But then they started throwing them at cars and I had the gut instinct it was just wrong.”

The first snowball hit Simmons’ car like a fist pounding against the window, followed by a surge of many more. Suddenly, he was blinded by a thick blanket of snow covering his windshield as students pushed snow from his roof across the front of the car.

Simmons figured students would cease fire if he stepped out of the car and they saw a 68-year old retiree standing in front of them.

They didn’t.

“I just decided maybe if I get out, they’ll see that I’m 60 years old and I’m a human being,” Simmons said.

The moment he opened his car door, Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown tossed a bucket-full of snow into Simmons’ face.

Journalism major Tommy Pittenger, who also works for The Emerald’s business department, caught the incident on video. It was posted on YouTube by the Emerald, gaining rapid momentum and spreading across news and social media platforms. The video eventually took the No. 2 spot on Reddit and it’s received more than 1.8 million views on YouTube.

All of that attention and the criticism it inspired has led the university to launch an official investigation.

The University of Oregon Police Department and various university departments, including the athletic department, are working together to identify the people shown and review the conduct depicted in the video to determine possible disciplinary action.

“As far as I can tell, the person in the vehicle was just going about lawful business as a driver and wasn’t asking to be in the situation,” UOPD Communications Officer Kelly McIver said.  “It’s one thing to have fun with people who agree to do that and another to involve people who are unwilling.”

Head football coach Mark Helfrich also chimed in with a written statement, as some of the students involved are believed to be the football players who organized the snowball fight.

“On Saturday, I was made aware of an incident that occurred Friday afternoon during the snow day involving multiple Oregon students including members of the football team,” he wrote. “The behavior exhibited in the video is completely unacceptable and dangerous. We take this matter very serious and disciplinary actions have begun.”

After watching the video, UO psychology professor Sara Hodges recognized a typical pattern in the crowd’s behavior, something commonly understood as what’s known as crowd psychology.

“A crowd can be a pretty powerful force when you’re caught up and not thinking of yourself as an individual,” Hodges said. “People might do things they wouldn’t normally do without a crowd’s influence.”

Hodges described the behavior as de-individuation, the social psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual loses self-awareness in a group setting. Persons in a de-individuated crowd can begin thinking of themselves as part of a group that’s throwing snow and stop thinking of the consequences of their individual relationship with the person in the car who’s not part of the game.

But crowd de-individuation does not always have negative outcomes.

“When cheering at a football game, you’re not thinking of yourself as an individual,” Hodges said. “You’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.”

In this case, Simmons was clearly not a voluntary participant in the activities.

As Simmons exited the car, several snowballs were chucked at him, hitting his jacket and the side of his face. He attempted to talk to several students but with little resolution — no student would admit to involvement when singled out.

“I was disoriented and all I wanted to do was ask why they were doing this and to ask them to please stop,” he said. “That’s it.”

In the background of the video, little can be heard over the cheering, laughing and shouting coming from the crowd surrounding Simmons.

Hodges explained the cheering as a possible motivating factor for the students involved in the snowball fight.

“The crowd is in this mode of cheering people on,” she said. “There’s almost a social reward for participating and being a part of the fun.”

Hodges distinguished several other factors that may have contributed to the progression of what began as a friendly snowball fight and escalated into an aggressive and potentially dangerous situation for the retired professor.

The rare heavy snowfall in Eugene on Friday may have created a situation so unfamiliar to students that they didn’t recognize appropriate behavior, according to Hodges. A university in a snow-heavy location, like Colorado, for example, may have established norms that make an incident like this much more rare.

Other universities across the nation have faced similar issues when fresh snow hits the ground. In 2009, students at East Carolina University organized a snowball fight with more than 200 participants that led to local officers using pepper spray. Earlier this year, a student at Boston University who allegedly threw a snowball at a campus officer was chased down, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. But in that case, the Boston student also pelted a police officer with a snowball.

Hodges also said that the physical veil the layers of winter clothes created for individuals, paired with the excitement of school closing at 2 p.m. with many people still on campus created an arousing atmosphere where all bets were suddenly off.

Simmons also recognized the crowd’s mentality, expressing relief that he didn’t panic behind the wheel and step on the gas. He feels that could have been an instinctual reaction for some.

“When someone stops a car and stands in front of it, you don’t really know what might happen,” he said. “But the idea that I was parked in my car and would joyfully take part in a snowball fight at 68 years old is absurd.”

Ever since the video began to spread, Simmons has heard from many former students from across the country and world, reflective of the attention it has received. Simmons has made it clear that he has no intention of pressing charges.

“I have confidence that the reaction of the university given what has happened will be proportional,” Simmons said. “It will consider these young people and their futures and will also, I hope, suggest to them that they need to rethink behavior like that.”

Follow Julianne Parker on Twitter @julianneparker



  • P

    Any football player that threw snow at the car or the professor needs to be suspended for the entirety of the Alamo Bowl. I doubt they will get any playing time taken away though, the coach’s response reads like a lawyer wrote it.

  • Fenwyck

    good grief…it was an f-ing snowball fight., not Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, or Desert Storm. Yes, it went too far, but no one was hurt. Stop making it into WW3. Use it as a learning and teaching experience, and move on. No need to suspend anyone. GO DUCKS!

    • A

      What they did was plain disrespectful and not taking proper action against it will only cause escalation in behaviors like this. The driver did NOT deserve what happened and someone could have gotten seriously hurt. A teaching experience would be to show consequence. Suspension would be light, in my opinion.

    • No

      They should not be rewarded for disrespectful behavior, and nurture the belief that [high profile] athletes an get away with anything that they do.
      They were just lucky that this man has more class than they do.

      • John Winters

        You are a wise man

    • J

      They definitely deserve suspension. It is unfair to teach people that if you are an “important player” then you can get off scott free. Well in the REAL world, it doesn’t work that way and the players need to be knocked down a peg. Everyone is lucky that the man didn’t have a gun on him and start shooting or get pneumonia and die. Those players are very immature, and also very lucky

      • GDW13

        I agree that everyone involved was lucky as it could have turned out way worse. (think NY SUV incident)

        Unfortunately, in the real world it all too often does work that way (in college and beyond). How many times have we seen celebrities get off with a slap on the wrist (or less) in situations where regular people would have been locked up?

    • John Winters

      Were you the victim? If not then shut the hell up you dick.

  • bill

    This “analysis” appears to be an effort to explain away personal responsibility for ugly, self indulgent behavior. True, it is popular to blame outside influences/factors for personal behavior these days. But that sort of moralizing generally encourages the very behavior that most people find unacceptable in a civil society. Maybe it reflects the writers desire to minimize the significance of his own anti-social behavior.. I really don’t know. In any case, do we really want to minimize personal responsibility for a belligerent, cowardly action that can lead to serious and unanticipated reactions? I honestly think most young adults are capable of recognizing right from wrong, whether a crowd exists or not. When no one stepped in to stop the assault, or come to the aid of the Professor, it exposed the character of the bystanders…immature cowards.

    • Social psychologist

      The point of the research that Professor Hodges refers to is that deindividuation causes people to engage in acts they otherwise wouldn’t. In fact, most people are capable of far worse behavior given the right circumstances. It’s not that these kids don’t know or care about right from wrong, it’s that they were induced to distance themselves from it in large part because of the situation.

      In his comment, Bill is demonstrating another bias, the fundamental attribution error, by jumping to conclusions about the causes of someone’s behavior while naively underestimating the power of the situation.

      • Cody

        Absolutely true. In fact, Bill’s insinuation–that the events unfolded because of the “character” of the participants–is actually the dangerous view because it insulates people from the truth that just about all of us are capable of doing reprehensible things in certain circumstances (see Zimbardo, Milgram, etc.). That’s not to say that individuals share no blame; at the very least, we can conclude that the people here lacked a certain amount of self-control and awareness. But understanding and acknowledging the effects of social psychology is ultimately the key for individuals and society alike to prevent mob-like behavior from occurring.

        • Drew

          Good point Cody.

        • anon

          I saw Zimbardo on the Phil Donahue show about forty years ago. I don’t remember how he put it but he said something about people having to be made aware that they’re still responsible for what they do even if they’re in a mob. Which I figure means we should still publicly judge these people as if they were acting individually.

      • Drew

        I agree completely. It’s crazy how Bill’s post has more likes than yours.

      • Emily

        Wow seriously? Just TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS. You always have a choice.

    • Drew

      While I agree that people should take personal responsibility for a situation like this, you are grossly underestimating the influence a crowd can have on people’s behavior. Think of World War 2 for example. Why were there millions of Nazis if young adults are capable of recognizing right from wrong? Although speaking out against Hitler’s actions may have been punishable, people fighting in the Nazi army were doing so by choice. There are countless examples today and throughout history that show how much a crowd can dictate one’s behavior both negatively and positively. You should do a little research. “I honestly think most young adults are capable of recognizing right from wrong.” Where’s your evidence for this claim? Why should I consider what you”honestly believe” more credible than an analysis by an accredited psychologist who studies human behavior. To make my point clear, I agree that the crowd is NOT an excuse for this behavior, as everyone is saying, but it is an explanation as to understand why these people did this. There is no real argument in your writing. There’s just a lot of irrational thoughts backed up by your intense emotions. Please educate yourself before speaking so passionately about something you do not understand whatsoever. Thanks.

      • keenecharger

        The anti-Semitic and the strong sense of Nationalism did not begin with Hitler or the Nazi Party. The German Empire created an environment for someone like Hitler to come in and lead their country in the manner he did. It was not a crowd of Germans in a square that decided to support Hitler. It was a political and inherent movement of the German people to advance their race. Every single person knows right from wrong. Even dogs when they get into the trash when their owners are not home.

        • Drew

          There are so many things wrong with this its absurd…. You should really read up about psychology.

  • UO Mom

    This is sad that a fun loving event has been turned into another politically correct teaching moment. It is very apparent that the students realized they had become too rowdy and were making amends to Mr. Simmons before he drove off. To all the the critics out there, get off of your computers, go outside and enjoy life!

    • pauleky

      Too little, too late. The fact that they did it in the first place is the problem. “Make amends”…you’re funny.

    • Officer-Rivieri

      Amends? you must be well out of your mind… oh wait… UO education i get it

      • John Winters

        Hahahahaha im on your side

  • AmericanCulture

    Stay classy Oregon.

  • OhYeahThatsSoCoolToBeABully

    That was bullying behavior. It is so obvious. Why do people defend bullies and creeps. CREEPSTERS! And here’s a shout out to other people in the video, who saw that it wasn’t right and tried to settle down the sad excuse for a human being who thought it was fun to dump on an old man.

  • taxpayer

    Disgusting. UO should forego a post season bowl. The progream continues out of control.

  • David Michael

    Remember when Oregon had a good football team? That seems like a long time ago! Losses to Stanford and USC. LMFAO.

    • D

      I realize Oregon did take a step back as a football team this season, but you need to check facts before you open your mouth. They did not lose to USC (they did not even play them this season). The team you were looking for is University of Arizona…

  • NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism

    Find every single one of the student-urchins involved, require he/she to lay face down on the road with their arms extended above their heads and their palms flat on the pavement, and allow the driver to pilot his car slowly over the backs of their hands.

    Once the driver has completed his run, allow him to back up his vehicle slowly over the backs of the hands of each and every one of the student-urchins.

    That’s the only appropriate punishment for these student-urchins.

    • Cody

      Vindictive and dumb opinion.

      • Michael M

        Unfamiliar weather as and excuse, and/or anyone dismissing this behavior because they actually believe ‘college students are immature children who need someone to hold their hand and supervise their every move, and should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want’ are dumb people with ridiculous opinions.

      • NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism

        Code,

        After watching these Duck Dynasty Geniuses dumb snow on the guy, belting one’s hand with a hammer every hour on the hour would appear brilliant in comparison.

        And if you want to produce their incompetent parents, it’s quite possible that face down, hands up, auto forward vindication can be arranged for them, too.

    • John Winters

      If only

  • imaginaryGHOST

    If it was me, I would have calmly got out of my car and shot that dancing moron in the head.

    • John Winters

      Me and u bro

    • NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism

      IG,

      I disagree. We’re talking life’s lesson here – not fatality.

      A baseball bat to the side of the knee or across the back of the hands of each and every one of these Duck Juvenile Delinquents would:

      A. Preserve their existence, which is paramount; and,

      B. Leave them with the kind of broken bones that would serve as a reminder every time the humidity suddenly changed and/or the snow fell for decades of their long, and let’s hope healthy, lives.

      Fifty years from now, after one of these Duck Juvenile Delinquents limps his/her way to the breakfast table and/or drops his/her coffee cup a dozen times once seated on a snow-filled day like the one above, a grandchild asks, “Grandpa (or grandma), why are you moving so funny?”

      “Well, child, see, it’s like this. A half-century ago, I did a real dumb thing – and I’ve been carrying the memory of that real dumb thing every day for the past 50 years. Don’t let this happen to you.”

      Endless pain. And a lesson. Not to mention parenting. That’s what these Duck Juvenile Delinquents require.

      • Mina

        And you can say that the snowfall created a situation so unfamiliar that you didn’t know what you were doing.

    • r3t0dd

      Internet Tough Guy.

      • imaginaryGHOST

        Why? Oregon is an open-carry and stand your ground state. This was a group assault. Not sure how defending yourself makes you a tough guy? I bet you just shake in your boots and beg the bad men to go away, huh?

        • Amur El Bey

          if your first reaction to a bunch of college kids throwing snowballs at you is to take out your gun and kill them, then you sir have some serious mental issues.

          • NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism

            Correct. No need to shoot anyone.

            Just drive the vehicle back and forth over their hands. No loss of life. And a lesson that they’ll carry for the rest of their lives.

          • Amur El Bey

            I’ve been bullied before. I’ve been beaten up before. But i’ve never had the urge to shoot somebody in the head nor have I had the urge to painfully crush their hands beyond use by running over them with a vehicle.

            It’s called “excessive force” and “Disproportionate Retribution”. Hell if you did that YOU would be the one going to prison, not the kids.

            The kids are assholes. They deserve a punch in the face, sure. But do they deserve to die/ get brutality mutilated? No.

            Lets face it, neither of you would do SHIT. Your just acting like a bunch of Internet Tough Guys.

    • keenecharger

      Yes, Yes, and Yes

  • Michael M

    Unfamiliar weather? THAT’S the reporter’s justification for this unacceptable behavior? They’re college students, not third graders. Expel everyone involved. There was NO EXCUSE for that assault. Unfamiliar weather…give me a break. Why not give them an award for their actions? Present it at nice expensive ceremony with catering, live band…. Pat them on the back and say, There, There. We don’t throw buckets of snow at the elderly while they’re in their vehicles. Now, I know you got all ADD and ADHD and OCD and visions of Time Outs ran through your head on the overdose of seeing SNOW, but you can’t do that. That’s probably how you would handle the situation, right, Julianne.

  • Mank

    Man watched the video on YouTube… All I thought wAs how immature these people are. And there all probably at lest. 20′s??? I’m 19 and I sure as hell don’t act like that nor think oh I’m gonna throw snow at people who don’t want to participate. To think… Thoes kids are our future… Our coworkers, team players, bosses, they are the ones that are suppose to make a positive change… Not an immature movement.

  • Smokestack

    Professor Simmons may be retired, but he continues to teach great lessons.

  • Smokestack

    Professor Simmons may be retired, but he continues to teach great lessons.

  • msbeau

    One Word…PUNKS. Wonder how they would feel if it were their Grandparents were the ones being pelted with snowballs. I wonder if the punk who stood in front of the vehicle got run over if it would be so funny. You blind the driver and get in front of the car….this is our future generation….GOD help us.

  • r3t0dd

    Prof. Simmons is all class. Hopefully a couple of kids will learn something about that.

  • r3t0dd

    Let them play. All these players will receive their due punishment in the Alamo bowl. Hook ‘em Horns!

  • Ian

    This was really stupid. What if it wasn’t an elderly man who was just going by his business? What if it was a police officer who was off duty? What if the person the students did this to had a short temper and a firearm? Crowd or not, the idea that anyone would be content with this happening to them is idiotic

  • Anna

    This is bullying. Straight and simple.

  • swag

    disgusting what the society is

  • Jon

    Snow is Unfamiliar weather? In Oregon? You got to be kidding. Those kids should be suspended. How shameful.

  • keenecharger

    All those involved are dispicable creatures. The level of disrespect is appalling and is indicative of their maturity and intelligence. If assaulting someone in there car is not a crime then I don’t know what it.

  • WorldTraveler

    Professor Hodges needs a clue: She offers paragraphs and paragraphs of fancy terms to describe actions that a 12 year old knows not to do.. Pharoah Brown and his friends can come and take behavior lessons from some middle schoolers: They clearly need it.

  • Heaven help us

    Mob mentality—aka people unable to think for themselves. Heaven help us all, because athletes like this are set upon a pedestal, and there are people that defend them. Grow up, put your big kid underwear on and make a positive difference in the world. Stupid jocks