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.





THE LEADERS OF CROWDS. THE MORALITY OF CROWDS. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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