When defining crowds, we said that one of their general

characteristics was an excessive suggestibility, and we have

shown to what an extent suggestions are contagious in every human

agglomeration; a fact which explains the rapid turning of the

sentiments of a crowd in a definite direction. However

indifferent it may be supposed, a crowd, as a rule, is in a state

of expectant attention, which renders suggestion easy. The first

suggestion formulated which arises implants itself immediately by

a process of contagion in the brains of all assembled, and the

identical bent of the sentiments of the crowd is immediately an

accomplished fact.

As is the case with all persons under the influence of

suggestion, the idea which has entered the brain tends to

transform itself into an act. Whether the act is that of setting

fire to a palace, or involves self-sacrifice, a crowd lends

itself to it with equal facility. All will depend on the nature

of the exciting cause, and no longer, as in the case of the

isolated individual, on the relations existing between the act

suggested and the sum total of the reasons which may be urged

against its realisation.

In consequence, a crowd perpetually hovering on the borderland of

unconsciousness, readily yielding to all suggestions, having all

the violence of feeling peculiar to beings who cannot appeal to

the influence of reason, deprived of all critical faculty, cannot

be otherwise than excessively credulous. The improbable does not

exist for a crowd, and it is necessary to bear this circumstance

well in mind to understand the facility with which are created

and propagated the most improbable legends and stories.[3]

examples of this credulity of crowds. A candle alight in an

upper story was immediately looked upon as a signal given the

besiegers, although it was evident, after a moment of reflection,

that it was utterly impossible to catch sight of the light of the

candle at a distance of several miles.

The creation of the legends which so easily obtain circulation in

crowds is not solely the consequence of their extreme credulity.

It is also the result of the prodigious perversions that events

undergo in the imagination of a throng. The simplest event that

comes under the observation of a crowd is soon totally

transformed. A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself

immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical

connection with the first. We can easily conceive this state by

thinking of the fantastic succession of ideas to which we are

sometimes led by calling up in our minds any fact. Our reason

shows us the incoherence there is in these images, but a crowd is

almost blind to this truth, and confuses with the real event what

the deforming action of its imagination has superimposed thereon.

A crowd scarcely distinguishes between the subjective and the

objective. It accepts as real the images evoked in its mind,

though they most often have only a very distant relation with the

observed fact.

The ways in which a crowd perverts any event of which it is a

witness ought, it would seem, to be innumerable and unlike each

other, since the individuals composing the gathering are of very

different temperaments. But this is not the case. As the result

of contagion the perversions are of the same kind, and take the

same shape in the case of all the assembled individuals.

The first perversion of the truth effected by one of the

individuals of the gathering is the starting-point of the

contagious suggestion. Before St. George appeared on the walls

of Jerusalem to all the Crusaders he was certainly perceived in

the first instance by one of those present. By dint of

suggestion and contagion the miracle signalised by a single

person was immediately accepted by all.

Such is always the mechanism of the collective hallucinations so

frequent in history--hallucinations which seem to have all the

recognised characteristics of authenticity, since they are

phenomena observed by thousands of persons.

To combat what precedes, the mental quality of the individuals

composing a crowd must not be brought into consideration. This

quality is without importance. From the moment that they form

part of a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally

incapable of observation.

This thesis may seem paradoxical. To demonstrate it beyond doubt

it would be necessary to investigate a great number of historical

facts, and several volumes would be insufficient for the purpose.

Still, as I do not wish to leave the reader under the impression

of unproved assertions, I shall give him some examples taken at

hazard from the immense number of those that might be quoted.

The following fact is one of the most typical, because chosen

from among collective hallucinations of which a crowd is the

victim, in which are to be found individuals of every kind, from

the most ignorant to the most highly educated. It is related

incidentally by Julian Felix, a naval lieutenant, in his book on

"Sea Currents," and has been previously cited by the Revue


The frigate, the Belle Poule, was cruising in the open sea for

the purpose of finding the cruiser Le Berceau, from which she had

been separated by a violent storm. It was broad daylight and in

full sunshine. Suddenly the watch signalled a disabled vessel;

the crew looked in the direction signalled, and every one,

officers and sailors, clearly perceived a raft covered with men

towed by boats which were displaying signals of distress. Yet

this was nothing more than a collective hallucination. Admiral

Desfosses lowered a boat to go to the rescue of the wrecked

sailors. On nearing the object sighted, the sailors and officers

on board the boat saw "masses of men in motion, stretching out

their hands, and heard the dull and confused noise of a great

number of voices." When the object was reached those in the boat

found themselves simply and solely in the presence of a few

branches of trees covered with leaves that had been swept out

from the neighbouring coast. Before evidence so palpable the

hallucination vanished.

The mechanism of a collective hallucination of the kind we have

explained is clearly seen at work in this example. On the one

hand we have a crowd in a state of expectant attention, on the

other a suggestion made by the watch signalling a disabled vessel

at sea, a suggestion which, by a process of contagion, was

accepted by all those present, both officers and sailors.

It is not necessary that a crowd should be numerous for the

faculty of seeing what is taking place before its eyes to be

destroyed and for the real facts to be replaced by hallucinations

unrelated to them. As soon as a few individuals are gathered

together they constitute a crowd, and, though they should be

distinguished men of learning, they assume all the

characteristics of crowds with regard to matters outside their

speciality. The faculty of observation and the critical spirit

possessed by each of them individually at once disappears. An

ingenious psychologist, Mr. Davey, supplies us with a very

curious example in point, recently cited in the Annales des

Sciences Psychiques, and deserving of relation here. Mr. Davey,

having convoked a gathering of distinguished observers, among

them one of the most prominent of English scientific men, Mr.

Wallace, executed in their presence, and after having allowed

them to examine the objects and to place seals where they wished,

all the regulation spiritualistic phenomena, the materialisation

of spirits, writing on slates, &c. Having subsequently obtained

from these distinguished observers written reports admitting that

the phenomena observed could only have been obtained by

supernatural means, he revealed to them that they were the result

of very simple tricks. "The most astonishing feature of Monsieur

Davey's investigation," writes the author of this account, "is

not the marvellousness of the tricks themselves, but the extreme

weakness of the reports made with respect to them by the

noninitiated witnesses. It is clear, then," he says, "that

witnesses even in number may give circumstantial relations which

are completely erroneous, but whose result is THAT, IF THEIR

DESCRIPTIONS ARE ACCEPTED AS EXACT, the phenomena they describe

are inexplicable by trickery. The methods invented by Mr. Davey

were so simple that one is astonished that he should have had the

boldness to employ them; but he had such a power over the mind of

the crowd that he could persuade it that it saw what it did not

see." Here, as always, we have the power of the hypnotiser over

the hypnotised. Moreover, when this power is seen in action on

minds of a superior order and previously invited to be

suspicious, it is understandable how easy it is to deceive

ordinary crowds.

Analogous examples are innumerable. As I write these lines the

papers are full of the story of two little girls found drowned in

the Seine. These children, to begin with, were recognised in the

most unmistakable manner by half a dozen witnesses. All the

affirmations were in such entire concordance that no doubt

remained in the mind of the juge d'instruction. He had the

certificate of death drawn up, but just as the burial of the

children was to have been proceeded with, a mere chance brought

about the discovery that the supposed victims were alive, and

had, moreover, but a remote resemblance to the drowned girls. As

in several of the examples previously cited, the affirmation of

the first witness, himself a victim of illusion, had sufficed to

influence the other witnesses.

In parallel cases the starting-point of the suggestion is always

the illusion produced in an individual by more or less vague

reminiscences, contagion following as the result of the

affirmation of this initial illusion. If the first observer be

very impressionable, it will often be sufficient that the corpse

he believes he recognises should present-- apart from all real

resemblance--some peculiarity, a scar, or some detail of toilet

which may evoke the idea of another person. The idea evoked may

then become the nucleus of a sort of crystallisation which

invades the understanding and paralyses all critical faculty.

What the observer then sees is no longer the object itself, but

the image evoked in his mind. In this way are to be explained

erroneous recognitions of the dead bodies of children by their

own mother, as occurred in the following case, already old, but

which has been recently recalled by the newspapers. In it are to

be traced precisely the two kinds of suggestion of which I have

just pointed out the mechanism.

"The child was recognised by another child, who was mistaken.

The series of unwarranted recognitions then began.

"An extraordinary thing occurred. The day after a schoolboy had

recognised the corpse a woman exclaimed, `Good Heavens, it is my


"She was taken up to the corpse; she examined the clothing, and

noted a scar on the forehead. `It is certainly,' she said, `my

son who disappeared last July. He has been stolen from me and


"The woman was concierge in the Rue du Four; her name was

Chavandret. Her brother-in-law was summoned, and when questioned

he said, `That is the little Filibert.' Several persons living in

the street recognised the child found at La Villette as Filibert

Chavandret, among them being the boy's schoolmaster, who based

his opinion on a medal worn by the lad.

"Nevertheless, the neighbours, the brother-in-law, the

schoolmaster, and the mother were mistaken. Six weeks later the

identity of the child was established. The boy, belonging to

Bordeaux, had been murdered there and brought by a carrying

company to Paris."[4]

It will be remarked that these recognitions are most often made

by women and children--that is to say, by precisely the most

impressionable persons. They show us at the same time what is

the worth in law courts of such witnesses. As far as children,

more especially, are concerned, their statements ought never to

be invoked. Magistrates are in the habit of repeating that

children do not lie. Did they possess a psychological culture a

little less rudimentary than is the case they would know that, on

the contrary, children invariably lie; the lie is doubtless

innocent, but it is none the less a lie. It would be better to

decide the fate of an accused person by the toss of a coin than,

as has been so often done, by the evidence of a child.

To return to the faculty of observation possessed by crowds, our

conclusion is that their collective observations are as erroneous

as possible, and that most often they merely represent the

illusion of an individual who, by a process of contagion, has

suggestioned his fellows. Facts proving that the most utter

mistrust of the evidence of crowds is advisable might be

multiplied to any extent. Thousands of men were present

twenty-five years ago at the celebrated cavalry charge during the

battle of Sedan, and yet it is impossible, in the face of the

most contradictory ocular testimony, to decide by whom it was

commanded. The English general, Lord Wolseley, has proved in a

recent book that up to now the gravest errors of fact have been

committed with regard to the most important incidents of the

battle of Waterloo--facts that hundreds of witnesses had

nevertheless attested.[5]

took place? I am very doubtful on the point. We know who were

the conquerors and the conquered, but this is probably all. What

M. D'Harcourt has said with respect to the battle of Solferino,

which he witnessed and in which he was personally engaged, may be

applied to all battles--"The generals (informed, of course, by

the evidence of hundreds of witnesses) forward their official

reports; the orderly officers modify these documents and draw up

a definite narrative; the chief of the staff raises objections

and re-writes the whole on a fresh basis. It is carried to the

Marshal, who exclaims, `You are entirely in error,' and he

substitutes a fresh edition. Scarcely anything remains of the

original report." M. D'Harcourt relates this fact as proof of

the impossibility of establishing the truth in connection with

the most striking, the best observed events.

Such facts show us what is the value of the testimony of crowds.

Treatises on logic include the unanimity of numerous witnesses in

the category of the strongest proofs that can be invoked in

support of the exactness of a fact. Yet what we know of the

psychology of crowds shows that treatises on logic need on this

point to be rewritten. The events with regard to which there

exists the most doubt are certainly those which have been

observed by the greatest number of persons. To say that a fact

has been simultaneously verified by thousands of witnesses is to

say, as a rule, that the real fact is very different from the

accepted account of it.

It clearly results from what precedes that works of history must

be considered as works of pure imagination. They are fanciful

accounts of ill-observed facts, accompanied by explanations the

result of reflection. To write such books is the most absolute

waste of time. Had not the past left us its literary, artistic,

and monumental works, we should know absolutely nothing in

reality with regard to bygone times. Are we in possession of a

single word of truth concerning the lives of the great men who

have played preponderating parts in the history of humanity--men

such as Hercules, Buddha, or Mahomet? In all probability we are

not. In point of fact, moreover, their real lives are of slight

importance to us. Our interest is to know what our great men

were as they are presented by popular legend. It is legendary

heroes, and not for a moment real heroes, who have impressed the

minds of crowds.

Unfortunately, legends--even although they have been definitely

put on record by books--have in themselves no stability. The

imagination of the crowd continually transforms them as the

result of the lapse of time and especially in consequence of

racial causes. There is a great gulf fixed between the

sanguinary Jehovah of the Old Testament and the God of Love of

Sainte Therese, and the Buddha worshipped in China has no traits

in common with that venerated in India.

It is not even necessary that heroes should be separated from us

by centuries for their legend to be transformed by the

imagination of the crowd. The transformation occasionally takes

place within a few years. In our own day we have seen the legend

of one of the greatest heroes of history modified several times

in less than fifty years. Under the Bourbons Napoleon became a

sort of idyllic and liberal philanthropist, a friend of the

humble who, according to the poets, was destined to be long

remembered in the cottage. Thirty years afterwards this

easy-going hero had become a sanguinary despot, who, after having

usurped power and destroyed liberty, caused the slaughter of

three million men solely to satisfy his ambition. At present we

are witnessing a fresh transformation of the legend. When it has

undergone the influence of some dozens of centuries the learned

men of the future, face to face with these contradictory

accounts, will perhaps doubt the very existence of the hero, as

some of them now doubt that of Buddha, and will see in him

nothing more than a solar myth or a development of the legend of

Hercules. They will doubtless console themselves easily for this

uncertainty, for, better initiated than we are to-day in the

characteristics and psychology of crowds, they will know that

history is scarcely capable of preserving the memory of anything

except myths.

THE REASONING POWER OF CROWDS TRADITIONS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail