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THE MEANS OF ACTION OF THE LEADERS: AFFIRMATION, REPETITION, CONTAGION





When it is wanted to stir up a crowd for a short space of time,
to induce it to commit an act of any nature--to pillage a palace,
or to die in defence of a stronghold or a barricade, for
instance--the crowd must be acted upon by rapid suggestion, among
which example is the most powerful in its effect. To attain this
end, however, it is necessary that the crowd should have been
previously prepared by certain circumstances, and, above all,
that he who wishes to work upon it should possess the quality to
be studied farther on, to which I give the name of prestige.

When, however, it is proposed to imbue the mind of a crowd with
ideas and beliefs--with modern social theories, for instance--the
leaders have recourse to different expedients. The principal of
them are three in number and clearly defined--affirmation,
repetition, and contagion. Their action is somewhat slow, but
its effects, once produced, are very lasting.

Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all
proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the
mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more
destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the
more weight it carries. The religious books and the legal codes
of all ages have always resorted to simple affirmation.
Statesmen called upon to defend a political cause, and commercial
men pushing the sale of their products by means of advertising
are acquainted with the value of affirmation.

Affirmation, however, has no real influence unless it be
constantly repeated, and so far as possible in the same terms.
It was Napoleon, I believe, who said that there is only one
figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition.
The thing affirmed comes by repetition to fix itself in the mind
in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated
truth.

The influence of repetition on crowds is comprehensible when the
power is seen which it exercises on the most enlightened minds.
This power is due to the fact that the repeated statement is
embedded in the long run in those profound regions of our
unconscious selves in which the motives of our actions are
forged. At the end of a certain time we have forgotten who is
the author of the repeated assertion, and we finish by believing
it. To this circumstance is due the astonishing power of
advertisements. When we have read a hundred, a thousand, times
that X's chocolate is the best, we imagine we have heard it said
in many quarters, and we end by acquiring the certitude that such
is the fact. When we have read a thousand times that Y's flour
has cured the most illustrious persons of the most obstinate
maladies, we are tempted at last to try it when suffering from an
illness of a similar kind. If we always read in the same papers
that A is an arrant scamp and B a most honest man we finish by
being convinced that this is the truth, unless, indeed, we are
given to reading another paper of the contrary opinion, in which
the two qualifications are reversed. Affirmation and repetition
are alone powerful enough to combat each other.

When an affirmation has been sufficiently repeated and there is
unanimity in this repetition--as has occurred in the case of
certain famous financial undertakings rich enough to purchase
every assistance-- what is called a current of opinion is formed
and the powerful mechanism of contagion intervenes. Ideas,
sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious
power as intense as that of microbes. This phenomenon is very
natural, since it is observed even in animals when they are
together in number. Should a horse in a stable take to biting
his manger the other horses in the stable will imitate him. A
panic that has seized on a few sheep will soon extend to the
whole flock. In the case of men collected in a crowd all
emotions are very rapidly contagious, which explains the
suddenness of panics. Brain disorders, like madness, are
themselves contagious. The frequency of madness among doctors
who are specialists for the mad is notorious. Indeed, forms of
madness have recently been cited--agoraphobia, for
instance--which are communicable from men to animals.

For individuals to succumb to contagion their simultaneous
presence on the same spot is not indispensable. The action of
contagion may be felt from a distance under the influence of
events which give all minds an individual trend and the
characteristics peculiar to crowds. This is especially the case
when men's minds have been prepared to undergo the influence in
question by those remote factors of which I have made a study
above. An example in point is the revolutionary movement of
1848, which, after breaking out in Paris, spread rapidly over a
great part of Europe and shook a number of thrones.

Imitation, to which so much influence is attributed in social
phenomena, is in reality a mere effect of contagion. Having
shown its influence elsewhere, I shall confine myself to
reproducing what I said on the subject fifteen years ago. My
remarks have since been developed by other writers in recent
publications.

"Man, like animals, has a natural tendency to imitation.
Imitation is a necessity for him, provided always that the
imitation is quite easy. It is this necessity that makes the
influence of what is called fashion so powerful. Whether in the
matter of opinions, ideas, literary manifestations, or merely of
dress, how many persons are bold enough to run counter to the
fashion? It is by examples not by arguments that crowds are
guided. At every period there exists a small number of
individualities which react upon the remainder and are imitated
by the unconscious mass. It is needful however, that these
individualities should not be in too pronounced disagreement with
received ideas. Were they so, to imitate them would be too
difficult and their influence would be nil. For this very reason
men who are too superior to their epoch are generally without
influence upon it. The line of separation is too strongly
marked. For the same reason too Europeans, in spite of all the
advantages of their civilisation, have so insignificant an
influence on Eastern people; they differ from them to too great
an extent.

"The dual action of the past and of reciprocal imitation renders,
in the long run, all the men of the same country and the same
period so alike that even in the case of individuals who would
seem destined to escape this double influence, such as
philosophers, learned men, and men of letters, thought and style
have a family air which enables the age to which they belong to
be immediately recognised. It is not necessary to talk for long
with an individual to attain to a thorough knowledge of what he
reads, of his habitual occupations, and of the surroundings amid
which he lives."[17]



1881.



Contagion is so powerful that it forces upon individuals not only
certain opinions, but certain modes of feeling as well.
Contagion is the cause of the contempt in which, at a given
period, certain works are held--the example of "Tannhauser" may
be cited--which, a few years later, for the same reason are
admired by those who were foremost in criticising them.

The opinions and beliefs of crowds are specially propagated by
contagion, but never by reasoning. The conceptions at present
rife among the working classes have been acquired at the
public-house as the result of affirmation, repetition, and
contagion, and indeed the mode of creation of the beliefs of
crowds of every age has scarcely been different. Renan justly
institutes a comparison between the first founders of
Christianity and "the socialist working men spreading their ideas
from public-house to public-house"; while Voltaire had already
observed in connection with the Christian religion that "for more
than a hundred years it was only embraced by the vilest
riff-raff."

It will be noted that in cases analogous to those I have just
cited, contagion, after having been at work among the popular
classes, has spread to the higher classes of society. This is
what we see happening at the present day with regard to the
socialist doctrines which are beginning to be held by those who
will yet be their first victims. Contagion is so powerful a
force that even the sentiment of personal interest disappears
under its action.

This is the explanation of the fact that every opinion adopted by
the populace always ends in implanting itself with great vigour
in the highest social strata, however obvious be the absurdity of
the triumphant opinion. This reaction of the lower upon the
higher social classes is the more curious, owing to the
circumstance that the beliefs of the crowd always have their
origin to a greater or less extent in some higher idea, which has
often remained without influence in the sphere in which it was
evolved. Leaders and agitators, subjugated by this higher idea,
take hold of it, distort it and create a sect which distorts it
afresh, and then propagates it amongst the masses, who carry the
process of deformation still further. Become a popular truth the
idea returns, as it were, to its source and exerts an influence
on the upper classes of a nation. In the long run it is
intelligence that shapes the destiny of the world, but very
indirectly. The philosophers who evolve ideas have long since
returned to dust, when, as the result of the process I have just
described, the fruit of their reflection ends by triumphing.





Next: PRESTIGE

Previous: THE LEADERS OF CROWDS.



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