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GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CROWDS PSYCHOLOGICAL LAW OF THEIR MENTAL UNITY.





What constitutes a crowd from the psychological point of view--A
numerically strong agglomeration of individuals does not suffice
to form a crowd--Special characteristics of psychological
crowds--The turning in a fixed direction of the ideas and
sentiments of individuals composing such a crowd, and the
disappearance of their personality--The crowd is always dominated
by considerations of which it is unconscious--The disappearance
of brain activity and the predominance of medullar activity--The
lowering of the intelligence and the complete transformation of
the sentiments--The transformed sentiments may be better or worse
than those of the individuals of which the crowd is composed--A
crowd is as easily heroic as criminal.


In its ordinary sense the word "crowd" means a gathering of
individuals of whatever nationality, profession, or sex, and
whatever be the chances that have brought them together. From
the psychological point of view the expression "crowd" assumes
quite a different signification. Under certain given
circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an
agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different
from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and
ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same
direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A
collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting
very clearly defined characteristics. The gathering has thus
become what, in the absence of a better expression, I will call
an organised crowd, or, if the term is considered preferable, a
psychological crowd. It forms a single being, and is subjected
to the LAW OF THE MENTAL UNITY OF CROWDS.

It is evident that it is not by the mere fact of a number of
individuals finding themselves accidentally side by side that
they acquire the character of an organised crowd. A thousand
individuals accidentally gathered in a public place without any
determined object in no way constitute a crowd from the
psychological point of view. To acquire the special
characteristics of such a crowd, the influence is necessary of
certain predisposing causes of which we shall have to determine
the nature.

The disappearance of conscious personality and the turning of
feelings and thoughts in a definite direction, which are the
primary characteristics of a crowd about to become organised, do
not always involve the simultaneous presence of a number of
individuals on one spot. Thousands of isolated individuals may
acquire at certain moments, and under the influence of certain
violent emotions--such, for example, as a great national
event--the characteristics of a psychological crowd. It will be
sufficient in that case that a mere chance should bring them
together for their acts to at once assume the characteristics
peculiar to the acts of a crowd. At certain moments half a dozen
men might constitute a psychological crowd, which may not happen
in the case of hundreds of men gathered together by accident. On
the other hand, an entire nation, though there may be no visible
agglomeration, may become a crowd under the action of certain
influences.

A psychological crowd once constituted, it acquires certain
provisional but determinable general characteristics. To these
general characteristics there are adjoined particular
characteristics which vary according to the elements of which the
crowd is composed, and may modify its mental constitution.
Psychological crowds, then, are susceptible of classification;
and when we come to occupy ourselves with this matter, we shall
see that a heterogeneous crowd--that is, a crowd composed of
dissimilar elements--presents certain characteristics in common
with homogeneous crowds--that is, with crowds composed of
elements more or less akin (sects, castes, and classes)--and side
by side with these common characteristics particularities which
permit of the two kinds of crowds being differentiated.

But before occupying ourselves with the different categories of
crowds, we must first of all examine the characteristics common
to them all. We shall set to work like the naturalist, who
begins by describing the general characteristics common to all
the members of a family before concerning himself with the
particular characteristics which allow the differentiation of the
genera and species that the family includes.

It is not easy to describe the mind of crowds with exactness,
because its organisation varies not only according to race and
composition, but also according to the nature and intensity of
the exciting causes to which crowds are subjected. The same
difficulty, however, presents itself in the psychological study
of an individual. It is only in novels that individuals are
found to traverse their whole life with an unvarying character.
It is only the uniformity of the environment that creates the
apparent uniformity of characters. I have shown elsewhere that
all mental constitutions contain possibilities of character which
may be manifested in consequence of a sudden change of
environment. This explains how it was that among the most savage
members of the French Convention were to be found inoffensive
citizens who, under ordinary circumstances, would have been
peaceable notaries or virtuous magistrates. The storm past, they
resumed their normal character of quiet, law-abiding citizens.
Napoleon found amongst them his most docile servants.

It being impossible to study here all the successive degrees of
organisation of crowds, we shall concern ourselves more
especially with such crowds as have attained to the phase of
complete organisation. In this way we shall see what crowds may
become, but not what they invariably are. It is only in this
advanced phase of organisation that certain new and special
characteristics are superposed on the unvarying and dominant
character of the race; then takes place that turning already
alluded to of all the feelings and thoughts of the collectivity
in an identical direction. It is only under such circumstances,
too, that what I have called above the PSYCHOLOGICAL LAW OF THE
MENTAL UNITY OF CROWDS comes into play.

Among the psychological characteristics of crowds there are some
that they may present in common with isolated individuals, and
others, on the contrary, which are absolutely peculiar to them
and are only to be met with in collectivities. It is these
special characteristics that we shall study, first of all, in
order to show their importance.

The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd
is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it,
however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations,
their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have
been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort
of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a
manner quite different from that in which each individual of them
would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.
There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into
being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the
case of individuals forming a crowd. The psychological crowd is
a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a
moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a
living body form by their reunion a new being which displays
characteristics very different from those possessed by each of
the cells singly.

Contrary to an opinion which one is astonished to find coming
from the pen of so acute a philosopher as Herbert Spencer, in the
aggregate which constitutes a crowd there is in no sort a
summing-up of or an average struck between its elements. What
really takes place is a combination followed by the creation of
new characteristics, just as in chemistry certain elements, when
brought into contact--bases and acids, for example--combine to
form a new body possessing properties quite different from those
of the bodies that have served to form it.

It is easy to prove how much the individual forming part of a
crowd differs from the isolated individual, but it is less easy
to discover the causes of this difference.

To obtain at any rate a glimpse of them it is necessary in the
first place to call to mind the truth established by modern
psychology, that unconscious phenomena play an altogether
preponderating part not only in organic life, but also in the
operations of the intelligence. The conscious life of the mind
is of small importance in comparison with its unconscious life.
The most subtle analyst, the most acute observer, is scarcely
successful in discovering more than a very small number of the
unconscious motives that determine his conduct. Our conscious
acts are the outcome of an unconscious substratum created in the
mind in the main by hereditary influences. This substratum
consists of the innumerable common characteristics handed down
from generation to generation, which constitute the genius of a
race. Behind the avowed causes of our acts there undoubtedly lie
secret causes that we do not avow, but behind these secret causes
there are many others more secret still which we ourselves
ignore. The greater part of our daily actions are the result of
hidden motives which escape our observation.

It is more especially with respect to those unconscious elements
which constitute the genius of a race that all the individuals
belonging to it resemble each other, while it is principally in
respect to the conscious elements of their character--the fruit
of education, and yet more of exceptional hereditary
conditions--that they differ from each other. Men the most
unlike in the matter of their intelligence possess instincts,
passions, and feelings that are very similar. In the case of
every thing that belongs to the realm of sentiment--religion,
politics, morality, the affections and antipathies, &c.--the most
eminent men seldom surpass the standard of the most ordinary
individuals. From the intellectual point of view an abyss may
exist between a great mathematician and his boot maker, but from
the point of view of character the difference is most often
slight or non-existent.

It is precisely these general qualities of character, governed by
forces of which we are unconscious, and possessed by the majority
of the normal individuals of a race in much the same degree--it
is precisely these qualities, I say, that in crowds become common
property. In the collective mind the intellectual aptitudes of
the individuals, and in consequence their individuality, are
weakened. The heterogeneous is swamped by the homogeneous, and
the unconscious qualities obtain the upper hand.

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities
explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high
degree of intelligence. The decisions affecting matters of
general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction,
but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly
superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of
imbeciles. The truth is, they can only bring to bear in common
on the work in hand those mediocre qualities which are the
birthright of every average individual. In crowds it is
stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated. It is not all
the world, as is so often repeated, that has more wit than
Voltaire, but assuredly Voltaire that has more wit than all the
world, if by "all the world" crowds are to be understood.

If the individuals of a crowd confined themselves to putting in
common the ordinary qualities of which each of them has his
share, there would merely result the striking of an average, and
not, as we have said is actually the case, the creation of new
characteristics. How is it that these new characteristics are
created? This is what we are now to investigate.

Different causes determine the appearance of these
characteristics peculiar to crowds, and not possessed by isolated
individuals. The first is that the individual forming part of a
crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment
of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which,
had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint.
He will be the less disposed to check himself from the
consideration that, a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence
irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always
controls individuals disappears entirely.

The second cause, which is contagion, also intervenes to
determine the manifestation in crowds of their special
characteristics, and at the same time the trend they are to take.
Contagion is a phenomenon of which it is easy to establish the
presence, but that it is not easy to explain. It must be classed
among those phenomena of a hypnotic order, which we shall shortly
study. In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and
contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices
his personal interest to the collective interest. This is an
aptitude very contrary to his nature, and of which a man is
scarcely capable, except when he makes part of a crowd.

A third cause, and by far the most important, determines in the
individuals of a crowd special characteristics which are quite
contrary at times to those presented by the isolated individual.
I allude to that suggestibility of which, moreover, the contagion
mentioned above is neither more nor less than an effect.

To understand this phenomenon it is necessary to bear in mind
certain recent physiological discoveries. We know to-day that by
various processes an individual may be brought into such a
condition that, having entirely lost his conscious personality,
he obeys all the suggestions of the operator who has deprived him
of it, and commits acts in utter contradiction with his character
and habits. The most careful observations seem to prove that an
individual immerged for some length of time in a crowd in action
soon finds himself--either in consequence of the magnetic
influence given out by the crowd, or from some other cause of
which we are ignorant--in a special state, which much resembles
the state of fascination in which the hypnotised individual finds
himself in the hands of the hypnotiser. The activity of the
brain being paralysed in the case of the hypnotised subject, the
latter becomes the slave of all the unconscious activities of his
spinal cord, which the hypnotiser directs at will. The conscious
personality has entirely vanished; will and discernment are lost.
All feelings and thoughts are bent in the direction determined by
the hypnotiser.

Such also is approximately the state of the individual forming
part of a psychological crowd. He is no longer conscious of his
acts. In his case, as in the case of the hypnotised subject, at
the same time that certain faculties are destroyed, others may be
brought to a high degree of exaltation. Under the influence of a
suggestion, he will undertake the accomplishment of certain acts
with irresistible impetuosity. This impetuosity is the more
irresistible in the case of crowds than in that of the hypnotised
subject, from the fact that, the suggestion being the same for
all the individuals of the crowd, it gains in strength by
reciprocity. The individualities in the crowd who might possess
a personality sufficiently strong to resist the suggestion are
too few in number to struggle against the current. At the
utmost, they may be able to attempt a diversion by means of
different suggestions. It is in this way, for instance, that a
happy expression, an image opportunely evoked, have occasionally
deterred crowds from the most bloodthirsty acts.

We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious
personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the
turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and
ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately
transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the
principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a
crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who
has ceased to be guided by his will.

Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised
crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of
civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a
crowd, he is a barbarian--that is, a creature acting by instinct.
He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and
also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he
further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows
himself to be impressed by words and images--which would be
entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals
composing the crowd--and to be induced to commit acts contrary to
his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An
individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of
sand, which the wind stirs up at will.

It is for these reasons that juries are seen to deliver verdicts
of which each individual juror would disapprove, that
parliamentary assemblies adopt laws and measures of which each of
their members would disapprove in his own person. Taken
separately, the men of the Convention were enlightened citizens
of peaceful habits. United in a crowd, they did not hesitate to
give their adhesion to the most savage proposals, to guillotine
individuals most clearly innocent, and, contrary to their
interests, to renounce their inviolability and to decimate
themselves.

It is not only by his acts that the individual in a crowd differs
essentially from himself. Even before he has entirely lost his
independence, his ideas and feelings have undergone a
transformation, and the transformation is so profound as to
change the miser into a spendthrift, the sceptic into a believer,
the honest man into a criminal, and the coward into a hero. The
renunciation of all its privileges which the nobility voted in a
moment of enthusiasm during the celebrated night of August 4,
1789, would certainly never have been consented to by any of its
members taken singly.

The conclusion to be drawn from what precedes is, that the crowd
is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual, but
that, from the point of view of feelings and of the acts these
feelings provoke, the crowd may, according to circumstances, he
better or worse than the individual. All depends on the nature
of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed. This is the
point that has been completely misunderstood by writers who have
only studied crowds from the criminal point of view. Doubtless a
crowd is often criminal, but also it is often heroic. It is
crowds rather than isolated individuals that may be induced to
run the risk of death to secure the triumph of a creed or an
idea, that may be fired with enthusiasm for glory and honour,
that are led on--almost without bread and without arms, as in the
age of the Crusades--to deliver the tomb of Christ from the
infidel, or, as in '93, to defend the fatherland. Such heroism
is without doubt somewhat unconscious, but it is of such heroism
that history is made. Were peoples only to be credited with the
great actions performed in cold blood, the annals of the world
would register but few of them.





Next: 1. IMPULSIVENESS, MOBILITY, AND IRRITABILITY OF CROWDS.

Previous: OF CROWDS.



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