The Crowd

„The Crowd“, a study of the popular mind by Gustave Le Bon is s short but concise description of the characteristics and the behaviour of a crowd. Le Bon dares to venture far away from any school of thought of his time, wishing to arrive at conclusions free from their prejudices and preconceived opinions. In doing so, Le Bon distanced himself from the risk of being part of a “crowd” that would diminish the results of its findings, for, as we later find out, no matter the intellectual degree of its composing individuals, the mere fact of belonging to a crowd lowers the chances of reaching a superiorly intellectual result.

The fact that even the intellectuals cannot escape the dangers of preconceived ideas of the groups they are part of when reaching their conclusions, doesn’t leave much hope for the rest of us. In fact, it is in solitude that we can have a chance of going through an intellectual process that is unbiased and free of the old unconscious influence, even if that intellectual process is concerned with the idea of the crowd.

Heredity endows the individual with characteristics that are common to a race and constitute the heredity of that particular race.

However, when a certain number of individuals get together for purpose of action, observation has proved that new characteristics arise, which add to the old characteristics of the race and differ, at times, to a very considerable degree to the inherited ones.

This brings about the futility of trying to impose the same rules and regulations upon all races, without taking into account the heredity of every race in particular. Whoever tries to manipulate the crowd on the basis of its characteristics should not forget the surprise factor as far as their unexpected behaviour is concerned. Knowing some traits of the crowd does not necessarily mean being able to manipulate all types of crowds and be certain of the result. The fallacy of imposing the same types of rules to different races shall bring about the endeavour to a halt at some point in time.   

The crowd

In a normal sense of the word, a crowd is a gathering of individuals of whatever nationality, profession or sex, irrespective of the reasons that brought them together. From a psychological perspective, a crowd has a different meaning. Under certain circumstances, and only under those respective circumstances, the agglomeration of men presents new characteristics that are very different from those of the individuals composing that crowd. The ideas and sentiments of the persons gathered in a crowd take one and the same direction while their conscious personality vanishes at the same time. Now a collective mind is formed. The crowd turns into an organized crowd governed by the law of the mental unity of crowds.

However, a crowd does not form necessarily because a group of people have gathered in a place, by accident, side by side. A thousand individuals gathered in a place at a certain time without a directed objective does not bear the psychological characteristics of a crowd.

Moreover, a crowd does not necessarily mean the physical presence of many people in the same place, at the same time. Isolated individuals having the same ideals can make up a crowd. Take members of the same community. Though dispersed in their daily lives, can easily form a crowd with a clear, guided object. The number of individuals composing a psychological crowd is not relevant. Half a dozen individuals guided by the same principles and objectives can make up a psychological crowd.

Isolated vs. together

The most striking peculiarity of the psychological crowd is the following: no matter how different the profession, mode of life, ideas and intelligence level of the isolated individuals when they get together to form crowd new characteristics take the place of old ones. All of a sudden, their individuality is replaced by the traits of the crowd. The individual acts in a crowd in a different way than the way he acts in isolation. Just as in chemistry, acids and bases combine to form new elements with properties quite different from those of the bodies that have served to form them.

The difference between isolated individuals of a race lies in the conscious sphere that is formed through their education. The rest is represented by the unconscious sphere which brings together individuals of different levels. It’s not that much of a difference between a brilliant mathematician and his bootmaker, since their unconscious sphere shows them that they share common race characteristics they cannot escape from, no matter their intelligence level. This is the reason why no matter how intelligent the levels of the isolated individuals are, it dissipates and takes the place of the intelligent level of a crowd that is inferior irrespective of the individuals composing it. 

Difference causes of new characteristics brought about by being in a crowd

The individual gets a feeling of invincible power, purely from a numerical perspective of the crowd. Being part of a group gives the individual more courage than he would never have had in isolation.

If in isolation the individual keeps in check certain instincts of violence or retaliation, he will not be able to control those instincts when he is part of the crowd. Therefore, everything suppressed is set free. Man will be sure of the anonymous sense of the crowd, therefore the lack of responsibility of their individuals.

Contagion is another cause. It is a phenomenon which is easily felt but not easily explained. In a crowd, every sentiment and act are contagious, to such a degree that the individual will easily sacrifice his personal interest to the collective interest.

The most dangerous of all causes is the idea of suggestibility. Contagion is actually the effect of it. Just as the hypnotised person will do everything the hypnotizer suggests, so will the individual act in a crowd. No matter how different his acts are when he is alone, once an idea is suggested it shall spread throughout the crowd and by means of “reciprocity” (Robert Cialdini), shall contaminate all the members of the crowd.

The result is the disappearance of the conscious personality and the taking over of the unconscious one. Feelings and actions take the suggested direction by means of contagion. Thus, suggested ideas turn into actions. The individual is no longer himself but has become an automaton who is no longer guided by his will.

Intelligence goes out the window

 

The moment the individual becomes part of a psychological crowd, it’s the moment when intelligence goes out the window. A man descends a few rungs on the step of evolution, in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual. When part of a crowd, that same individual become a creature acting by instinct. He now possesses the violence, spontaneity, ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings whom he further resembles. He is now governed through images, words and suggestions, driven to commit acts that are out of his character in isolation but brought about by him being part of a crowd. Man is now a grain of sand amid other grains of sand which the wind stirs up at its will.

It’s for this reason that juries deliver verdicts different to the ones reached by the individuals forming that jury if they were in isolation. It’s the same with parliaments passing laws and measure of which each of their members would disapprove in his own person. Taken separately, the men are enlightened creatures of peaceful habits. United in a crowd, they do not hesitate their adhesion to the most savage proposals, contrary to their interests, to renounce their inviolability and decimate themselves.

The individual has undergone a transformation he is not even aware of.

The same crowd with different meaning

The conclusion to be drawn is that the crowd is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual. However, from the point of view of feelings and of the acts these feelings provoke, the crowd may, according to circumstances, be better or worse than the individual.

Even though the individual loses his intellectual capacity of self-preservation while being in a crowd, he sometimes gains other characteristics that he wouldn’t have, had he not been part of a crowd. Although Gustave Le Bon tries to keep away from the trends of thought painting the crowd in a negative manner, he himself is not an exception.

The individual may be lost when part of the crowd, but the same crowd can lift the individual to highs do not know before unless part of a crowd. Even though he depicts, at times, the possibility of the crowd to be guided towards good deeds, he mostly paints it in a doomed picture.

Crowds are intellectually inferior organizations, despite the intellectual level of the members forming them. It’s a fickle organism, that seems to develop a mind of its own, putting the good of the many above the good of the individual.

We are more primitive than we think

Crowds are susceptible to suggestion, thus, reacting in consequence, without even bothering of checking the facts. He who chooses to move the masses, doesn’t have to be a genius. All he has to know are which tricks to use to get people moving in the right direction. Once he activates the crowd, it’s almost impossible to get it to stop.

An important factor in the crowd is the leader. He has to be ruthless and not necessarily an intellectual. One suggestion from him is enough. Them through contagion, the suggestion spreads through the crowd like wildfire. The trick is to use affirmations, repetitions and images. Rationalization never works with crowds, but feelings do. Use words only to depict pictures that make up clear images. It doesn’t matter whether what you say is right or wrong, good or bad. It only matters the way you say it and the goal you have in mind when doing so.

Psychological crowds can be a very dangerous tool in the hands of fanatics, who know how to manipulate them. Just as Dale Carnegie and Robert Cialdini warn us: everything that is good can become a weapon in the hands of a man with bad intentions.

Psychologists talking about human nature start out by pointing out the frailty of our human condition. They show us that the tools we are trying to improve are not that sophisticated after all. On the other hand, the same teachings that show us our flaws are the road map to our manipulation when used by people with less than noble intentions. To think that our very brain designed for intellectual superiority can betray us so easily is a frightening thought.

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