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How Crowds Are Formed





In his well-known work on the psychology of the crowd Le Bon noted the
fact that the unconscious plays a large part in determining the behavior
of crowds. But he is not clear in his use of the term "unconscious." In
fact, as Graham Wallas justly points out, his terminology is very loose
indeed. Le Bon seems to have made little or no attempt to discover in
detail the processes of this unconscious. In company with most
psychologists of his time, he based his explanation upon the theory of
"suggestion and imitation." He saw in the unconscious merely a sort of
mystical "common humanity," from which he derived his--also
mystical--idea of a common crowd-mind which each individual in the crowd
in some unexplained manner shared. He says:

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....

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 intelligence.... Our conscious acts are the
outcome of an unconscious substratum created in the mind in the
main by heredity. This substratum consists of innumerable
characteristics handed down from generation to generation which
constitute the genius of the race....

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.... It is precisely these
general qualities of character, governed by forces of which we
are unconscious and possessed by the majority of 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 in the homogeneous and
the unconscious qualities obtain the upper hand.

It may safely be said, I think, that this assumed impersonal collective
mind of the crowd has no existence in a sound psychology. People's
minds show, of course, innumerable mutual influences, but they do not
fuse and run together. They are in many respects very similar, but
similarity is not identity, even when people are crowded together. Our
author has doubtless borrowed here rather uncritically from Herbert
Spencer's organic conception of society--his later statement, not quoted
here, that the alleged merging of the heterogeneous in the homogeneous
would logically imply a regression to a lower stage in evolution, is
another bit of Spencerian jargon commonly accepted in Le Bon's day.

When, however, Graham Wallas, in The Great Society, states that Le Bon
is not "himself clear whether he means that crowds have no collective
consciousness, or that every individual in a crowd is completely
unconscious," it seems to me that Wallas is a little unfair. Neither Le
Bon nor the relation of the unconscious to the crowd-mind may be
dismissed in Wallas's apparently easy manner. Le Bon has established two
points which I think cannot be successfully denied: first, that the
crowd is essentially a psychological phenomenon, people behaving
differently in a crowd from the way they behave when isolated; and
second, that the unconscious has something to do with crowd-thinking and
acting.

Wallas says of Le Bon:

Tarde and Le Bon were Frenchmen brought up on vivid descriptions
of the Revolution and themselves apprehensive of the spread of
socialism. Political movements which were in large part carried
out by men conscious and thoughtful, though necessarily ill
informed, seemed therefore to them as they watched them from the
outside to be due to the blind and unconscious impulses of
masses "incapable both of reflection and of reasoning."

There is some truth in this criticism. In spite of the attempt of the
famous author of crowd-psychology to give us a really scientific
explanation of crowd-phenomena, his obviously conservative bias robs his
work of much of its power to convince. We find here, just as in the case
of Gobineau, Nietzsche, Faguet, Conway, and other supporters of the
aristocratic idea, an a priori principle of distrust of the common
people as such. In many passages Le Bon does not sufficiently
distinguish between the crowd and the masses. Class and mass are opposed
to each other as though, due to their superior reasoning powers, the
classes were somehow free from the danger of behaving as crowd. This is
of course not true. Any class may behave and think as a crowd--in fact
it usually does so in so far as its class interests are concerned.
Anyone who makes a study of the public mind in America to-day will find
that the phenomena of the crowd-mind are not at all confined to
movements within the working class or so-called common people.

It has long been the habit of conservative writers to identify the crowd
with the proletariat and then to feel that the psychology of the
situation could be summed up in the statement that the crowd was simply
the creature of passion and blind emotion. The psychology which lies
back of such a view--if it is psychology rather than class prejudice--is
the old intellectualism which sought to isolate the intellect from the
emotional nature and make the true mental life primarily a knowledge
affair. The crowd, therefore, since it was regarded as an affair of the
emotions, was held to be one among many instances of the natural mental
inferiority of the common people, and a proof of their general unfitness
for self-government.

I do not believe that this emotional theory is the true explanation of
crowd-behavior. It cannot be denied that people in a crowd become
strangely excited. But it is not only in crowds that people show
emotion. Feeling, instinct, impulse, are the dynamic of all mental life.
The crowd doubtless inhibits as many emotions as it releases. Fear is
conspicuously absent in battle, pity in a lynching mob. Crowds are
notoriously anaesthetic toward the finer values of art, music, and
poetry. It may even be argued that the feelings of the crowd are
dulled, since it is only the exaggerated, the obvious, the cheaply
sentimental, which easily moves it.

There was a time when insanity was also regarded as excessive emotion.
The insane man was one who raved, he was mad. The word "crazy" still
suggests the condition of being "out of one's mind"--that is, driven by
irrational emotion. Psychiatry would accept no such explanation to-day.
Types of insanity are distinguished, not with respect to the mere amount
of emotional excitement they display, but in accordance with the
patient's whole psychic functioning. The analyst looks for some
mechanism of controlling ideas and their relation to impulses which are
operating in the unconscious. So with our understanding of the
crowd-mind. Le Bon is correct in maintaining that the crowd is not a
mere aggregation of people. It is a state of mind. A peculiar psychic
change must happen to a group of people before they become a crowd. And
as this change is not merely a release of emotion, neither is it the
creation of a collective mind by means of imitation and suggestion. My
thesis is that the crowd-mind is a phenomenon which should best be
classed with dreams, delusions, and the various forms of automatic
behavior. The controlling ideas of the crowd are the result neither of
reflection nor of "suggestion," but are akin to what, as we shall see
later, the psychoanalysts term "complexes." The crowd-self--if I may
speak of it in this way--is analogous in many respects to "compulsion
neurosis," "somnambulism," or "paranoiac episode." Crowd ideas are
"fixations"; they are always symbolic; they are always related to
something repressed in the unconscious. They are what Doctor Adler would
call "fictitious guiding lines."

There is a sense in which all our thinking consists of symbol and
fiction. The laws, measurements, and formulas of science are all as it
were "shorthand devices"--instruments for relating ourselves to reality,
rather than copies of the real. The "truth" of these working ideas is
demonstrated in the satisfactoriness of the results to which they lead
us. If by means of them we arrive at desired and desirable adaptations
to and within our environment, we say they are verified. If, however, no
such verification is reached, or the result reached flatly contradicts
our hypothesis, the sane thinker holds his conclusions in abeyance,
revises his theories, or candidly gives them up and clings to the real
as empirically known.

Suppose now that a certain hypothesis, or "fiction," instead of being an
instrument for dealing with external reality, is unconsciously designed
as a refuge from the real. Suppose it is a symbolic compromise among
conflicting desires in the individual's unconscious of which he cannot
rid himself. Suppose it is a disguised expression of motives which the
individual as a civilized being cannot admit to his own consciousness.
Suppose it is a fiction necessary to keep up one's ego consciousness or
self-appreciative feeling without which either he or his world would
instantly become valueless. In these latter cases the fiction is not and
cannot be, without outside help, modified by the reality of experience.
The complex of ideas becomes a closed system, a world in and of itself.
Conflicting facts of experience are discounted and denied by all the
cunning of an insatiable, unconscious will. The fiction then gets itself
substituted for the true facts of experience; the individual has "lost
the function of the real." He no longer admits its disturbing elements
as correctives. He has become mentally unadjusted--pathological.

Most healthy people doubtless would on analysis reveal themselves as
nourishing fictions of this sort, more or less innocent in their
effects. It is possible that it is by means of such things that the
values of living are maintained for us all. But with the healthy these
fictions either hover about the periphery of our known world as shadowy
and elusive inhabitants of the inaccessible, or else they are socially
acceptable as religious convention, race pride, ethical values, personal
ambition, class honor, etc. The fact that so much of the ground of our
valuations, at least so far as these affect our self-appreciation, is
explicable by psychologists as "pathological" in origin need not startle
us. William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience, you will
remember, took the ground that in judging of matters of this kind, it is
not so much by their origins--even admitting the pathological as a
cause--but by their fruits that we shall know them. There are "fictions"
which are neither innocent nor socially acceptable in their effects on
life and character. Many of our crowd-phenomena belong, like paranoia,
to this last class.

As I shall try to show later, the common confusion of the crowd with
"society" is an error. The crowd is a social phenomenon only in the
sense that it affects a number of persons at the same time. As I have
indicated, people may be highly social without becoming a crowd. They
may meet, mingle, associate in all sorts of ways, and organize and
co-operate for the sake of common ends--in fact, the greater part of our
social life might normally have nothing in common with crowd-behavior.
Crowd-behavior is pseudo-social--if social organizations be regarded as
a means to the achievement of realizable goods. The phenomena which we
call the crowd-mind, instead of being the outgrowth of the directly
social, are social only in the sense that all mental life has social
significance; they are rather the result of forces hidden in the
personal and unconscious psyche of the members of the crowd, forces
which are merely released by social gatherings of a certain sort.

Let us notice what happens in a public meeting as it develops into a
crowd, and see if we can trace some of the steps of the process. Picture
a large meeting-hall, fairly well filled with people. Notice first of
all what sort of interest it is which as a rule will most easily bring
an assemblage of people together. It need not necessarily be a matter of
great importance, but it must be something which catches and challenges
attention without great effort. It is most commonly, therefore, an
issue of some sort. I have seen efforts made in New York to hold mass
meetings to discuss affairs of the very greatest importance, and I have
noted the fact that such efforts usually fail to get out more than a
handful of specially interested persons, no matter how well advertised,
if the subject to be considered happens not to be of a controversial
nature. I call especial attention to this fact because later we shall
see that it is this element of conflict, directly or indirectly, which
plays an overwhelming part in the psychology of every crowd.

It is the element of contest which makes baseball so popular. A debate
will draw a larger crowd than a lecture. One of the secrets of the large
attendance of the forum is the fact that discussion--"talking back"--is
permitted and encouraged. The evangelist Sunday undoubtedly owes the
great attendance at his meetings in no small degree to the fact that he
is regularly expected to abuse some one.

If the matter to be considered is one about which there is keen partisan
feeling and popular resentment--if it lends itself to the spectacular
personal achievement of one whose name is known, especially in the face
of opposition or difficulties--or if the occasion permits of resolutions
of protest, of the airing of wrongs, of denouncing abuse of some kind,
or of casting statements of external principles in the teeth of "enemies
of humanity," then, however trivial the occasion, we may count on it
that our assembly will be well attended. Now let us watch the
proceedings.

The next thing in importance is the speaker. Preferably he should be an
"old war horse," a victor in many battles, and this for a psychological
reason which we shall soon examine. Whoever he is, every speaker with
any skill knows just when this state of mind which we call "crowd"
begins to appear. My work has provided me with rather unusual
opportunities for observing this sort of thing. As a regular lecturer
and also as director of the forum which meets three nights a week in the
great hall of Cooper Union, I have found that the intellectual interest,
however intense, and the development of the crowd-spirit are accompanied
by wholly different mental processes. Let me add in passing that the
audiences which gather at Cooper Union are, on the whole, the most
alert, sophisticated, and reflective that I have ever known. I doubt if
in any large popular assembly in America general discussion is carried
on with such habitual seriousness. When on rare occasions the spirit of
the crowd begins to manifest itself--and one can always detect its
beginnings before the audience is consciously aware of it--I have
noticed that discussion instantly ceases and people begin merely to
repeat their creeds and hurl cant phrases at one another. All then is
changed, though subtly. There may be laughter as at first; but it is
different. Before, it was humorous and playful, now there is a note of
hostility in it. It is laughter at some one or something. Even the
applause is changed. It is more frequent. It is more vigorous, and
instead of showing mere approval of some sentiment, it becomes a means
of showing the numerical strength of a group of believers of some sort.
It is as if those who applaud were unconsciously seeking to reveal to
themselves and others that there is a multitude on their side.

I have heard the most exciting and controversial subjects discussed, and
seen the discussion listened to with the intensest difference of
opinion, and all without the least crowd-phenomena--so long as the
speaker refrained from indulging in generalities or time-worn forms of
expression. So long as the matter discussed requires close and sustained
effort of attention, and the method of treatment is kept free from
anything which savors of ritual, even the favorite dogmas of popular
belief may be discussed, and though the interest be intense, it will
remain critical and the audience does not become a crowd. But let the
most trivial bit of bathos be expressed in rhythmical cadences and in
platitudinous terms, and the most intelligent audience will react as a
crowd. Crowd-making oratory is almost invariably platitudinous. In fact,
we think as a crowd only in platitudes, propaganda, ritual, dogma, and
symbol. Crowd-ideas are ready-made, they possess finality and
universality. They are fixed. They do not develop. They are ends in
themselves. Like the obsessions of the insane, there is a deadly
inevitability in the logic of them. They are "compulsions."

During the time of my connection with the Cooper Union Forum, we have
not had a crowd-demonstration in anything more than an incipient form.
The best laboratory for the study of such a phenomenon is the political
party convention, the mass meeting, or the religious revival. The
orators who commonly hold forth at such gatherings know intuitively the
functional value of bathos, ridicule, and platitude, and it is upon such
knowledge that they base the success of their careers in "getting the
crowd." The noisy "demonstrations" which it has of late become the
custom to stage as part of the rigmarole of a national party convention
have been cited as crowning examples of the stupidity and excess of
crowd enthusiasm. But this is a mistake. Anyone who has from the gallery
witnessed one or more of these mock "stampedes" will agree that they are
exhibitions of endurance rather than of genuine enthusiasm or of true
crowd-mindedness. They are so obviously manipulated and so deliberately
timed that they can hardly be regarded as true crowd-movements at all.
They are chiefly interesting as revelations of the general insincerity
of the political life of this republic.

True crowd-behavior requires an element of spontaneity--at least on the
part of the crowd. And we have abundant examples of this in public
meetings of all sorts. As the audience becomes crowd, the speaker's
cadence becomes more marked, his voice more oracular, his gestures more
emphatic. His message becomes a recital of great abstract "principles."
The purely obvious is held up as transcendental. Interest is kept upon
just those aspects of things which can be grasped with least effort by
all. Emphasis is laid upon those thought processes in which there is
greatest natural uniformity. The general, abstract, and superficial come
to be exalted at the expense of that which is unique and personal. Forms
of thought are made to stand as objects of thinking.

It is clear that such meaning as there is in those abstract names,
"Justice," "Right," "Liberty," "Peace," "Glory," "Destiny," etc., or in
such general phrases as "Brotherly Love," "Grand and Glorious," "Public
Weal," "Common Humanity," and many others, must vary with each one's
personal associations. Popular orators deal only with the greatest
common denominator of the meaning of these terms--that is, only those
elements which are common to the associations of all. Now the common
associations of words and phrases of this general nature are very
few--hardly more than the bare sound of the words, plus a vague mental
attitude or feeling of expectancy, a mere turning of the eyes of the
mind, as it were, in a certain direction into empty space. When, for
instance, I try now to leave out of the content of "justice" all my
personal associations and concrete experiences, I can discover no
remaining content beyond a sort of grand emptiness, with the intonations
of the word booming in my auditory centers like the ringing of a distant
bell. As "public property," the words are only a sort of worn banknote,
symbols of many meanings and intentions like my own, deposited in
individual minds. Interesting as these personal deposits are, and much
as we are mutually interested by them and moved to harmonious acting and
speaking, it is doubtful if more than the tiniest fragment of what we
each mean by "justice" can ever be communicated. The word is a
convenient instrument in adjusting our conduct to that of others, and
when such adjustment seems to meet with mutual satisfaction we say,
"That is just." But the just thing is always a concrete situation. And
the general term "justice" is simply a combination of sounds used to
indicate the class of things we call just. In itself it is but a form
with the content left out. And so with all other such abstractions.

Now if attention can be directed to this imaginary and vague "meaning
for everybody"--which is really the meaning for nobody--and so directed
that the associations with the unique in personal experience are
blocked, these abstractions will occupy the whole field of
consciousness. The mind will yield to any connection which is made among
them almost automatically. As conscious attention is cut away from the
psyche as a whole, the objects upon which it is centered will appear to
have a reality of their own. They become a closed system, perfectly
logical it may be in itself, but with the fatal logic commonly found in
paranoia--the fiction may become more real than life itself. It may be
substituted, while the spell is on, for the world of actual experience.
And just as the manifest content of a dream is, according to Freud, the
condensed and distorted symbol of latent dream-thoughts and desires in
the unconscious, so, in the case we are discussing, the unconscious
invests these abstract terms with its own peculiar meanings. They gain a
tremendous, though undefined, importance and an irresistible compelling
power.

Something like the process I have described occurs when the crowd
appears. People are translated to a different world--that is, a
different sense of the real. The speaker is transfigured to their
vision. His words take on a mysterious importance; something tremendous,
eternal, superhuman is at stake. Commonplace jokes become irresistibly
amusing. Ordinary truths are wildly applauded. Dilemmas stand clear with
all middle ground brushed away. No statement now needs qualification.
All thought of compromise is abhorrent. Nothing now must intervene to
rob these moments of their splendid intensity. As James once said of
drunkenness, "Everything is just utterly utter." They who are not for us
are against us.

The crowd-mind consists, therefore, first of all, of a disturbance of
the function of the real. The crowd is the creature of Belief. Every
crowd has its peculiar "illusions," ideals, dreams. It maintains its
existence as a crowd just so long as these crowd-ideas continue to be
held by practically all the members of the group--so long, in fact, as
such ideas continue to hold attention and assent to the exclusion of
ideas and facts which contradict them.

I am aware of the fact that we could easily be led aside at this point
into endless metaphysical problems. It is not our purpose to enter upon
a discussion of the question, what is the real world? The problem of the
real is by no means so simple as it appears "to common sense." Common
sense has, however, in practical affairs, its own criteria, and beyond
these it is not necessary for us now to stray. The "illusions" of the
crowd are almost never illusions in the psychological sense. They are
not false perceptions of the objects of sense. They are rather akin to
the delusions and fixed ideas commonly found in paranoia. The man in
the street does not ordinarily require the technique either of
metaphysics or of psychiatry in order to characterize certain
individuals as "crazy." The "crazy" man is simply unadjustable in his
speech and conduct. His ideas may be real to him, just as the
color-blind man's sensations of color may be as real as those of normal
people, but they won't work, and that is sufficient.

It is not so easy to apply this criterion of the real to our
crowd-ideas. Social realities are not so well ordered as the behavior of
the forces of nature. Things moral, religious, and political are
constantly in the making. The creative role which we all play here is
greater than elsewhere in our making of reality. When most of our
neighbors are motivated by certain ideas, those ideas become part of the
social environment to which we must adjust ourselves. In this sense they
are "real," however "crazy." Every struggle-group and faction in society
is constantly striving to establish its ideas as controlling forces in
the social reality. The conflicts among ideals are therefore in a sense
conflicts within the real. Ideas and beliefs which seek their
verification in the character of the results to which they lead, may
point to very great changes in experience, and so long as the believer
takes into account the various elements with which he has to deal, he
has not lost his hold upon reality. But when one's beliefs or principles
become ends in themselves, when by themselves they seem to constitute an
order of being which is more interesting than fact, when the believer
saves his faith only by denying or ignoring the things which contradict
him, when he strives not to verify his ideas but to "vindicate" them,
the ideas so held are pathological. The obsessions of the paranoiac are
of this sort. We shall see later that these ideas have a meaning, though
the conscious attention of the patient is systematically diverted from
that meaning. Crowd-ideas are similar. The reason why their pathology is
not more evident is the fact that they are simultaneously entertained by
so great a number of people.

There are many ideas in which our faith is sustained chiefly by the
knowledge that everyone about us also believes them. Belief on such
ground has commonly been said to be due to imitation or suggestion.
These do play a large part in determining all our thinking, but I can
see no reason why they should be more operative in causing the
crowd-mind than in other social situations. In fact, the distinctive
phenomena which I have called crowd-ideas clearly show that other causes
are at work.

Among civilized people, social relationships make severe demands upon
the individual. Primitive impulses, unchecked eroticism, tendencies to
perversions, and antisocial demands of the ego which are in us all, are
constantly inhibited, resisted, controlled and diverted to socially
acceptable ends. The savage in us is "repressed," his demands are so
habitually denied that we learn to keep him down, for the most part,
without conscious effort. We simply cease to pay attention to his
gnawing desires. We become decently respectable members of society
largely at the expense of our aboriginal nature. But the primitive in us
does not really die. It asserts itself harmlessly in dreams.
Psychoanalysis has revealed the fact that every dream is the realization
of some desire, usually hidden from our conscious thought by our
habitual repression. For this reason the dream work consists of symbols.
The great achievement of Freud is the technique which enables the
analyst to interpret this symbolism so that his own unconscious thought
and desire are made known to the subject. The dream is harmless and is
normally utilized by the unconscious ego because during sleep we cannot
move. If one actually did the things he dreamed, a thing which happens
in various somnambulisms, the dream would become anything but harmless.
Every psychosis is really a dramatized dream of this sort.

Now as it is the social which demands the repression of our primitive
impulses, it is to be expected that the unconscious would on certain
occasions make use of this same social in order to realize its primitive
desires. There are certain mental abnormalities, such as dementia
praecox, in which the individual behaves in a wholly antisocial manner,
simply withdrawing into himself. In the crowd the primitive ego
achieves its wish by actually gaining the assent and support of a
section of society. The immediate social environment is all pulled in
the same direction as the unconscious desire. A similar unconscious
impulse motivates each member of the crowd. It is as if all at once an
unspoken agreement were entered into whereby each member might let
himself go, on condition that he approved the same thing in all the
rest. Of course such a thing cannot happen consciously. Our normal
social consciousness would cause us each to resist, let us say, an
exhibition of cruelty--in our neighbors, and also in ourselves. The
impulse must therefore be disguised.

The term "unconscious" in the psychology of the crowd does not, of
course, imply that the people in the crowd are not aware of the fact
that they are lynching a negro or demanding the humiliation or
extermination of certain of their fellows. Everybody is perfectly aware
of what is being said and done; only the moral significance of the
thing is changed. The deed or sentiment, instead of being disapproved,
appears to be demanded, by moral principle, by the social welfare, by
the glory of the state, etc. What is unconscious is the fact that the
social is actually being twisted around into giving approval of the
things which it normally forbids. Every crowd considers that it is
vindicating some sacred principle. The more bloody and destructive the
acts to which it is impelled, the more moral are its professions. Under
the spell of the crowd's logic certain abstract principles lead
inevitably to the characteristic forms of crowd-behavior. They seem to
glorify such acts, to make heroes and martyrs of those who lead in their
performance.

The attention of everyone is first centered on the abstract and
universal, as I have indicated. The repressed wish then unconsciously
gives to the formulas which the crowd professes a meaning different from
that which appears, yet unconsciously associated with it. This
unconscious meaning is of course an impulse to act. But the motive
professed is not the real motive.

Normally our acts and ideas are corrected by our social environment. But
in a crowd our test of the real fails us, because, since the attention
of all near us is directed in the same way as our own, the social
environment for the time fails to check us. As William James said:

The sense that anything we think is unreal can only come when
that thing is contradicted by some other thing of which we
think. Any object which remains uncontradicted is ipso facto
believed and posited as "absolute reality."

Our immediate social environment is all slipping along with us. It no
longer contradicts the thing we want to believe, and, unconsciously,
want to do. As the uncontradicted idea is, for the time, reality, so is
it a motor impulse. The only normal reason why we do not act immediately
upon any one of our ideas is that action is inhibited by ideas of a
contradictory nature. As crowd, therefore, we find ourselves moving in a
fictitious system of ideas uncritically accepted as real--not as in
dreams realizing our hidden wishes, merely in imagination, but also
impelled to act them out in much the way that the psychoeurotic is
impelled to act out the fixed ideas which are really the symbols of his
suppressed wish. In other words, a crowd is a device for indulging
ourselves in a kind of temporary insanity by all going crazy together.

Of the several kinds of crowds, I have selected for our discussion the
mass meeting, because we are primarily interested in the ideas which
dominate the crowd. The same essential psychological elements are also
found in the street crowd or mob. Serious mob outbreaks seldom occur
without mass meetings, oratory, and propaganda. Sometimes, as in the
case of the French Revolution and of the rise of the Soviets in Russia,
the mass meetings are held in streets and public places. Sometimes, as,
for instance, the crowds in Berlin when Germany precipitated the World
War, a long period of deliberate cultivation of such crowd-ideas as
happen to be advantageous to the state precedes. There are instances,
such as the Frank case, which brought unenviable fame to Georgia, when
no mass meeting seems to have been held. It is possible that in this
instance, however, certain newspapers, and also the trial--which, as I
remember, was held in a theater and gave an ambitious prosecuting
attorney opportunity to play the role of mob leader--served the purpose
of the mass meeting.

The series of outbreaks in New York and other cities, shortly after the
War, between the socialists and certain returned soldiers, seem to have
first occurred quite unexpectedly, as do the customary negro lynchings
in the South. In each case I think it will be found that the complex of
crowd-ideas had been previously built up in the unconscious. A
deep-seated antagonism had been unconsciously associated with the
self-appreciative feelings of a number of individuals, all of which
found justification in the consciousness of these persons in the form
of devotion to principle, loyalty, moral enthusiasm, etc. I suspect that
under many of our professed principles there lurk elements of
unconscious sadism and masochism. All that is then required is an
occasion, some casual incident which will so direct the attention of a
number of these persons that they provide one another temporarily with a
congenial social environment. In the South this mob complex is doubtless
formed out of race pride, a certain unconscious eroticism, and will to
power, which unfortunately has too abundant opportunity to justify
itself as moral indignation. With the returned soldiers the unconscious
desires were often rather thinly disguised--primitive impulses to
violence which had been aroused and hardly satisfied by the war, a wish
to exhibit themselves which found its opportunity in the knowledge that
their lawlessness would be applauded in certain influential quarters, a
dislike of the nonconformist, the foreign, and the unknown, which took
the outward form of a not wholly unjustifiable resentment toward the
party which had to all appearances unpatriotically opposed our entrance
into the war.

Given a psychic situation of this nature, the steps by which it leads to
mob violence are much alike in all cases. All together they simply
amount to a process of like direction of the attention of a sufficient
number of persons so affected as to produce a temporary social
environment in which the unconscious impulses may be released with
mutual approval. The presence of the disliked object or person gains
general attention. At first there is only curiosity; then amusement;
there is a bantering of crude witticisms; then ridicule. Soon the joking
turns to insults. There are angry exclamations. A blow is struck. There
is a sudden rush. The blow, being the act which the members of the crowd
each unconsciously wished to do, gains general approval, "it is a blow
for righteousness"; a "cause" appears. Casually associated persons at
once become a group, brought together, of course, by their interest in
vindicating the principles at stake. The mob finds itself suddenly doing
things which its members did not know they had ever dreamed of.

Different as this process apparently is from that by which a meeting is
turned into a crowd by an orator, I think it will be seen that the two
are essentially alike.

Thus far we have been considering crowd-movements which are local and
temporary--casual gatherings, which, having no abiding reason for
continued association, soon dissolve into their individual elements.
Frequently, after participating in such a movement, the individual, on
returning to his habitual relations, "comes to." He wonders what the
affair was all about. In the light of his re-established control
ideas--he will call it "reason"--the unconscious impulses are again
repressed; he may look with shame and loathing upon yesterday's orgy.
Acts which he would ordinarily disapprove in his neighbors, he now
disapproves in himself. If the behavior of the crowd has not been
particularly atrocious and inexcusable to ordinary consciousness, the
reaction is less strong. The voter after the political campaign merely
"loses interest." The convert in the revival "backslides." The striker
returns to work and is soon absorbed by the daily routine of his task.
The fiery patriot, after the war, is surprised to find that his hatred
of the enemy is gradually waning. Electors who have been swept by a wave
of enthusiasm for "reform" and have voted for a piece of ill-considered
restrictive legislation easily lapse into indifference, and soon look
with unconcern or amusement upon open violations of their own
enactments. There is a common saying that the public has a short memory.
Pick up an old newspaper and read about the great movements and causes
which were only a short time ago stirring the public mind, many of them
are now dead issues. But they were not answered by argument; we simply
"got over" them.

Not all crowd-movements, however, are local and temporary. There are
passing moments of crowd-experience which are often too sweet to lose.
The lapse into everyday realism is like "falling from grace." The crowd
state of mind strives often to keep itself in countenance by
perpetuating the peculiar social-psychic conditions in which it can
operate. There are certain forms of the ego consciousness which are best
served by the fictions of the crowd. An analogy here is found in
paranoia, where the individual's morbid fixed ideas are really devices
for the protection of his self-esteem. The repressed infantile psyche
which exists in us all, and in certain neurotics turns back and attaches
itself to the image of the parent, finds also in the crowd a path for
expression. It provides a perpetual interest in keeping the crowd-state
alive. Notice how invariably former students form alumni associations,
and returned soldiers at once effect permanent organizations; persons
who have been converted in one of Mr. Sunday's religious campaigns do
the same thing--indeed there are associations of all sorts growing out
of these exciting moments in people's common past experience, the
purpose of which is mutually to recall the old days and aid one another
in keeping alive the enlarged self-feeling.

In addition to this, society is filled with what might be called
"struggle groups" organized for the survival and dominance of similarly
constituted or situated people. Each group has its peculiar interests,
economic, spiritual, racial, etc., and each such interest is a mixture
of conscious and unconscious purposes. These groups become sects, cults,
partisan movements, class struggles. They develop propaganda, ritual,
orthodoxies, dogma, all of which are hardly anything more than
stereotyped systems of crowd-ideas. These systems differ from those of
the neurosis in that the former are less idiosyncratic, but they
undoubtedly perform much the same function. The primary aim of every
such crowd is to keep itself together as a crowd. Hardly less important
is the desire of its members to dominate over all outsiders. The
professed purpose is to serve some cause or principle of universal
import. Thus the crowd idealizes itself as an end, makes sanctities of
its own survival values, and holds up its ideals to all men, demanding
that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess--which is to say,
that the crowd believes in its own future supremacy, the members of the
group knowing that such a belief has survival value. This principle is
used by every politician in predicting that his party is bound to win at
the next election.

Hence the crowd is a device by which the individual's "right" may be
baptized "righteousness" in general, and this personality by putting on
impersonality may rise again to new levels of self-appreciation. He
"belongs to something," something "glorious" and deathless. He himself
may be but a miserable clod, but the glory of his crowd reflects upon
him. Its expected triumph he already shares. It gives him back his lost
sense of security. As a good crowd man, true believer, loyal citizen,
devoted member, he has regained something of his early innocence. In
other members he has new brothers and sisters. In the finality of his
crowd-faith there is escape from responsibility and further search. He
is willing to be commanded. He is a child again. He has transferred his
repressed infantilism from the lost family circle to the crowd. There is
a very real sense in which the crowd stands to his emotional life in
loco parentis.

It is to be expected, therefore, that wherever possible the crowd-state
of mind will be perpetuated. Every sort of device will be used to keep
the members of the crowd from coming to. In almost every organization
and social relationship there will be a tendency on part of the
unconscious to behave as crowd. Thus permanent crowds exist on every
hand--especially wherever political, moral, or religious ideas are
concerned. The general and abstract character of these ideas makes them
easily accessible instruments for justifying and screening the
unconscious purpose. Moreover it is in just those aspects of our social
life where repression is greatest that crowd-thinking is most common,
for it is by means of such thinking and behavior that the unconscious
seeks evasions and finds its necessary compensations.

The modern man has in the printing press a wonderfully effective means
for perpetuating crowd-movements and keeping great masses of people
constantly under the sway of certain crowd-ideas. Every crowd-group has
its magazines, press agents, and special "literature" with which it
continually harangues its members and possible converts. Many books, and
especially certain works of fiction of the "best-seller" type, are
clearly reading-mob phenomena.

But the leader in crowd-thinking par excellence is the daily
newspaper. With few exceptions our journals emit hardly anything but
crowd-ideas. These great "molders of public opinion," reveal every
characteristic of the vulgar mob orator. The character of the writing
commonly has the standards and prejudices of the "man in the street."
And lest this man's ego consciousness be offended by the sight
of anything "highbrow"--that is, anything indicating that there
may be a superior intelligence or finer appreciation than his
own--newspaper-democracy demands that everything more exalted than the
level of the lowest cranial altitude be left out. The average result is
a deluge of sensational scandal, class prejudice, and special pleading
clumsily disguised with a saccharine smear of the cheapest moral
platitude. Consequently, the thinking of most of us is carried on
chiefly in the form of crowd-ideas. A sort of public-meeting self is
developed in the consciousness of the individual which dominates the
personality of all but the reflective few. We editorialize and
press-agent ourselves in our inmost musings. Public opinion is
manufactured just as brick are made. Possibly a slightly better
knowledge of mechanical engineering is required for making public
opinion, but the process is the same. Both can be stamped out in the
quantity required, and delivered anywhere to order. Our thinking on most
important subjects to-day is as little original as the mental processes
of the men who write and the machines which print the pages we read and
repeat as our own opinions.

Thomas Carlyle was never more sound than when railing at this "paper
age." And paper, he wisely asked us to remember, "is made of old rags."
Older writers who saw the ragged throngs in the streets were led to
identify the mob or crowd with the tattered, illiterate populace. Our
mob to-day is no longer merely tramping the streets. We have it at the
breakfast table, in the subway, alike in shop and boudoir, and
office--wherever, in fact, the newspaper goes. And the raggedness is not
exterior, nor is the mob confined to the class of the ill-clad and the
poor. The raggedness, and tawdriness have now become spiritual, a
universal presence entering into the fabric of nearly all our mental
processes.

We have now reached a point from which we can look back over the ground
we have traversed and note the points of difference between our view and
the well-known theory of Le Bon. The argument of the latter is as
follows: (1) From the standpoint of psychology, the crowd, as the term
is here defined, is not merely a group of people, it is the appearance
within such a group of a special mental condition, or crowd-mind. (2)
The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one
and the same direction. (3) Conscious personality vanishes. (4) A
collective mind is formed: This is Le Bon's "Law of the mental unity of
crowds." (5) This collective mind consists in the main of "general
qualities of character" which are our common racial inheritance. It is
an "unconscious substratum" which in the crowd becomes uppermost,
dominating over the unique personal consciousness. (6) Three causes
determine the characteristics of the crowd-mind, (a) From purely
numerical considerations, the individual acquires a sentiment of
invincible power which encourages him in an unrestrained yielding to his
instincts, (b) Contagion, or imitation, and (c) hypnotic suggestion
cause the individuals in the crowd to become "slaves of all the
unconscious activities of the spinal cord." (7) The resulting
characteristics of the crowd are (a) a descent of several rungs in the
ladder of civilization, (b) a general intellectual inferiority as
compared with the isolated individual, (c) loss of moral responsibility,
(d) impulsiveness, (e) credulity, (f) exaggeration, (g) intolerance, (h)
blind obedience to the leader of the crowd, (i) a mystical emotionalism.
(8) The crowd is finally and somewhat inconsistently treated by Le Bon
as being identical with the masses, the common people, the herd.

Without pausing to review the criticisms of this argument which were
made at the beginning of our discussion, our own view may be summarized
as follows: (1) The crowd is not the same as the masses, or any class or
gathering of people as such, but is a certain mental condition which may
occur simultaneously to people in any gathering or association. (2) This
condition is not a "collective mind." It is a release of repressed
impulses which is made possible because certain controlling ideas have
ceased to function in the immediate social environment. (3) This
modification in the immediate social environment is the result of mutual
concessions on the part of persons whose unconscious impulses to do a
certain forbidden thing are similarly disguised as sentiments which meet
with conscious moral approval. (4) Such a general disguising of the real
motive is a characteristic phenomenon of dreams and of mental pathology,
and occurs in the crowd by fixing the attention of all present upon the
abstract and general. Attention is thus held diverted from the
individual's personal associations, permitting these associations and
their accompanying impulses to function unconsciously. (5) The abstract
ideas so entertained become symbols of meanings which are unrecognized;
they form a closed system, like the obsessions of the paranoiac, and as
the whole group are thus moved in the same direction, the "compulsory"
logic of these ideas moves forward without those social checks which
normally keep us within bounds of the real. Hence, acting and thinking
in the crowd become stereotyped and "ceremonial." Individuals move
together like automatons. (6) As the unconscious chiefly consists of
that part of our nature which is habitually repressed by the social, and
as there is always, therefore, an unconscious resistance to this
repressive force, it follows that the crowd state, like the neurosis,
is a mechanism of escape and of compensation. It also follows that the
crowd-spirit will occur most commonly in reference to just those social
forms where repression is greatest--in matters political, religious, and
moral. (7) The crowd-mind is then not a mere excess of emotion on the
part of people who have abandoned "reason"; crowd-behavior is in a sense
psychopathic and has many elements in common with somnambulism, the
compulsion neurosis, and even paranoia. (8) Crowds may be either
temporary or permanent in their existence. Permanent crowds, with the
aid of the press, determine in greater or less degree the mental habits
of nearly everyone. The individual moves through his social world like a
popular freshman on a college campus, who is to be "spiked" by one or
another fraternity competing for his membership. A host of crowds
standing for every conceivable "cause" and "ideal" hover constantly
about him, ceaselessly screaming their propaganda into his ears,
bullying and cajoling him, pushing and crowding and denouncing one
another, and forcing all willy-nilly to line up and take sides with them
upon issues and dilemmas which represent the real convictions of
nobody.





Next: The Crowd And The Unconscious

Previous: The Crowd And The Social Problem Of To-day



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