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THE IMAGINATION OF CROWDS





Just as is the case with respect to persons in whom the reasoning
power is absent, the figurative imagination of crowds is very
powerful, very active and very susceptible of being keenly
impressed. The images evoked in their mind by a personage, an
event, an accident, are almost as lifelike as the reality.
Crowds are to some extent in the position of the sleeper whose
reason, suspended for the time being, allows the arousing in his
mind of images of extreme intensity which would quickly be
dissipated could they be submitted to the action of reflection.
Crowds, being incapable both of reflection and of reasoning, are
devoid of the notion of improbability; and it is to be noted that
in a general way it is the most improbable things that are the
most striking.

This is why it happens that it is always the marvellous and
legendary side of events that more specially strike crowds. When
a civilisation is analysed it is seen that, in reality, it is the
marvellous and the legendary that are its true supports.
Appearances have always played a much more important part than
reality in history, where the unreal is always of greater moment
than the real.

Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be
impressed by images. It is only images that terrify or attract
them and become motives of action.

For this reason theatrical representations, in which the image is
shown in its most clearly visible shape, always have an enormous
influence on crowds. Bread and spectacular shows constituted for
the plebeians of ancient Rome the ideal of happiness, and they
asked for nothing more. Throughout the successive ages this
ideal has scarcely varied. Nothing has a greater effect on the
imagination of crowds of every category than theatrical
representations. The entire audience experiences at the same
time the same emotions, and if these emotions are not at once
transformed into acts, it is because the most unconscious
spectator cannot ignore that he is the victim of illusions, and
that he has laughed or wept over imaginary adventures.
Sometimes, however, the sentiments suggested by the images are so
strong that they tend, like habitual suggestions, to transform
themselves into acts. The story has often been told of the
manager of a popular theatre who, in consequence of his only
playing sombre dramas, was obliged to have the actor who took the
part of the traitor protected on his leaving the theatre, to
defend him against the violence of the spectators, indignant at
the crimes, imaginary though they were, which the traitor had
committed. We have here, in my opinion, one of the most
remarkable indications of the mental state of crowds, and
especially of the facility with which they are suggestioned. The
unreal has almost as much influence on them as the real. They
have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.

The power of conquerors and the strength of States is based on
the popular imagination. It is more particularly by working upon
this imagination that crowds are led. All great historical
facts, the rise of Buddhism, of Christianity, of Islamism, the
Reformation, the French Revolution, and, in our own time, the
threatening invasion of Socialism are the direct or indirect
consequences of strong impressions produced on the imagination of
the crowd.

Moreover, all the great statesmen of every age and every country,
including the most absolute despots, have regarded the popular
imagination as the basis of their power, and they have never
attempted to govern in opposition to it "It was by becoming a
Catholic," said Napoleon to the Council of State, "that I
terminated the Vendeen war. By becoming a Mussulman that I
obtained a footing in Egypt. By becoming an Ultramontane that I
won over the Italian priests, and had I to govern a nation of
Jews I would rebuild Solomon's temple." Never perhaps since
Alexander and Caesar has any great man better understood how the
imagination of the crowd should be impressed. His constant
preoccupation was to strike it. He bore it in mind in his
victories, in his harangues, in his speeches, in all his acts.
On his deathbed it was still in his thoughts.

How is the imagination of crowds to be impressed? We shall soon
see. Let us confine ourselves for the moment to saying that the
feat is never to be achieved by attempting to work upon the
intelligence or reasoning faculty, that is to say, by way of
demonstration. It was not by means of cunning rhetoric that
Antony succeeded in making the populace rise against the
murderers of Caesar; it was by reading his will to the multitude
and pointing to his corpse.

Whatever strikes the imagination of crowds presents itself under
the shape of a startling and very clear image, freed from all
accessory explanation, or merely having as accompaniment a few
marvellous or mysterious facts: examples in point are a great
victory, a great miracle, a great crime, or a great hope. Things
must be laid before the crowd as a whole, and their genesis must
never be indicated. A hundred petty crimes or petty accidents
will not strike the imagination of crowds in the least, whereas a
single great crime or a single great accident will profoundly
impress them, even though the results be infinitely less
disastrous than those of the hundred small accidents put
together. The epidemic of influenza, which caused the death but
a few years ago of five thousand persons in Paris alone, made
very little impression on the popular imagination. The reason
was that this veritable hecatomb was not embodied in any visible
image, but was only learnt from statistical information furnished
weekly. An accident which should have caused the death of only
five hundred instead of five thousand persons, but on the same
day and in public, as the outcome of an accident appealing
strongly to the eye, by the fall, for instance, of the Eiffel
Tower, would have produced, on the contrary, an immense
impression on the imagination of the crowd. The probable loss of
a transatlantic steamer that was supposed, in the absence of
news, to have gone down in mid-ocean profoundly impressed the
imagination of the crowd for a whole week. Yet official
statistics show that 850 sailing vessels and 203 steamers were
lost in the year 1894 alone. The crowd, however, was never for a
moment concerned by these successive losses, much more important
though they were as far as regards the destruction of life and
property, than the loss of the Atlantic liner in question could
possibly have been.

It is not, then, the facts in themselves that strike the popular
imagination, but the way in which they take place and are brought
under notice. It is necessary that by their condensation, if I
may thus express myself, they should produce a startling image
which fills and besets the mind. To know the art of impressing
the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of
governing them.





Next: WHAT IS MEANT BY THE RELIGIOUS SENTIMENT

Previous: THE REASONING POWER OF CROWDS



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