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The Crowd And The Unconscious

Throughout the discussion thus far I have been making repeated reference
to the psychology of the unconscious, without going into detail any more
than was necessary. Let us now take a closer look at some of Freud's
discoveries. In this way, what Brill would call the "psychogenesis" of
certain characteristic ideas and practices of crowds will be, I think,
made clear. Up to this point we have dealt generally with those mental
processes by which the crowd is formed. There are certain traits,
tendencies, ways of thinking which crowds so uniformly display that one
is justified, in want of other explanation, in assuming them to be
unconsciously determined. The remarkable blindness of organized crowds
to the most obvious of their own performances is so common as to be the
regularly expected thing--that is, of crowds other than our own. Long
and extensive operations may be carried on for years by crowds whose
members repeatedly declare that such things are not being done. The way
in which a nation will carefully prepare for war, gradually organizing
its whole life on a military basis with tremendous cost and effort, all
the while declaring that it is interested only in peace, denying its
warlike intentions, and even in the moment of picking a quarrel with its
neighbors declare to all the world that it had been wantonly and
unexpectedly attacked, is all a matter of general comment. The American
colonists, during the decade before the signing of the Declaration of
Independence, of course had no conscious thought of separating from
Great Britain. Almost to the very last they professed their loyalty to
the King; but looking back now it is clear that Independence was the
motive all along, and doubtless could not have been achieved more
opportunely or with greater finesse if it had been deliberately planned
from the start. The Hebrew Scriptures contain a story which illustrates
this aspect of crowd-behavior everywhere. The Children of Israel in
bondage in Egypt merely wished to go out in the wilderness for a day or
so to worship their God. All they asked was religious liberty. How
unjust of the authorities to assume they were planning to run away
from their masters! You will remember that at the last moment they
incidentally borrow some jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors. Of
course they will pay it back after their little religious holiday,
but ... later a most unforeseen thing happens to that jewelry, a
scandalous thing--it is made into an idol. Does it require that one be a
psychologist to infer that it was the unconscious intention all along to
use this metal for just that, the first good chance they had--and that,
too, notwithstanding repeated prohibitions of idolatry? The motive for
borrowing the jewelry is evident.

Certain crowd-movements in America to-day give marked evidence of this
unconscious motivation. Notice how both the radical and reactionary
elements behave when, as is frequently the case with both, the
crowd-spirit comes over them. Certain radicals, who are fascinated with
the idea of the Russian Revolution, are still proclaiming sentiments of
human brotherhood, peace, and freedom, while unconsciously they are
doing just what their enemies accuse them of--playing with the welcome
ideas of violence, class war, and proletarian dictatorship. And
conservative crowds, while ostensibly defending American traditions and
ideals against destructive foreign influence, are with their own hands
daily desecrating many of the finest things which America has given to
the world in its struggle of more than a century for freedom and
justice. Members of each crowd, while blissfully unaware of the
incompatibility of their own motives and professions, have no illusions
about those of the counter-crowd. Each crowd sees in the professions of
its antagonist convincing proof of the insincerity and hypocrisy of the
other side. To the student of social philosophy both are right and both
wrong. All propaganda is lies, and every crowd is a deceiver, but its
first and worst deception is that of itself. This self-deception is a
necessary step in crowd-formation and is a sine qua non of becoming a
crowd. It is only necessary for members of a crowd to deceive themselves
and one another for the crowd-mind to function perfectly; I doubt if
they are often successful in deceiving anybody else. It was this common
crowd-phenomenon of self-deception which led Gobineau and Nietzsche to
the conclusion that the common people are liars. But as has been said,
the crowd is by no means peculiar to the working class; some of its
worst features are exhibited these days among employers, law-makers, and
the well-to-do classes. This deception is moreover not really conscious
and deliberate. If men deliberately set about to invent lies to justify
their behavior I have little doubt that most of them would be clever
enough to conjure up something a little more plausible. These naive and
threadbare "hypocrisies" of crowds are a commonplace mechanism of the
unconscious. It is interesting to note that the delusions of the
paranoiac likewise deceive no one but himself, yet within themselves
form a perfectly logical a priori system. They also serve the
well-understood purpose, like that of crowd-ideas, of keeping their
possessor in a certain fixed relation toward portions of his own psychic
material. As Brill says, they are "compromise formations."

Those who have read Freud's little book, Delusion and Dream, an
analysis of a psychological romance written by Wilhelm Jensen, will
recall how extensive a fabric of plausibilities a delusion may build up
in its defense in order at the same time to satisfy a repressed wish,
and keep the true meaning of the subject's acts and thoughts from
conscious attention. In the story which Freud has here taken as his
subject for study, a young student of archaeology has apparently
conquered all adolescent erotic interest and has devoted himself
whole-heartedly to his science. While at the ruins of ancient Pompeii,

he finds a bas-relief containing the figure of a young woman represented
in the act of walking with peculiar grace. A cast of this figure he
brings home. His interest is curiously aroused. At first this interest
appears to be scientific only, then aesthetic, and historical. Finally he
builds up about it a complete romance. He becomes restless and very much
of a misogynist, and is driven, he knows not why, again to the ruins.
Here he actually meets the object of his dreams in the solitude of the
excavated city. He allows himself to believe that the once living model
of his treasured bas-relief has again come to life. For days he meets
and talks with the girl, living all the while in a world of complete
unreality, until she finally succeeds in revealing herself as the young
woman who lives next door to him. It also appears that in their
childhood he and this girl had been playmates, and that in spite of all
his conscious indifference to her his unconscious interest was the
source of his interest in the bas-relief and the motive which led him to
return to Pompeii, where he unconsciously expected to find her. The
interesting thing about all this for our present study is the series of
devices, fictions, and compromises with reality which this repressed
interest made use of while having its way with him, and at the same time
resisting whatever might force it upon his conscious attention, where a
recognition of its significance might result in a deliberate rejection.

We shall not go into Freud's ingenious analysis of the mental processes
at work here. The following passage is sufficient for our purpose:

There is a kind of forgetting which distinguishes itself by the
difficulty with which memory is awakened, even by strong
appeals, as if a subjective resistance struggled against the
revival. Such forgetting has received the name of "repression"
in psychopathology ... about repression we can assert that
certainly it does not coincide with the destruction, the
obliteration of memory. The repressed material can not of itself
break through as memory, but remains potent and effective.

From this, and from what was said in our previous chapter, it is plain
that the term "unconscious" as used in psychology does not mean total
absence of psychic activity. It refers to thoughts and feelings which
have purposefully been forgotten--to experiences or impulses to which
we do not pay attention nor wish to attend to, but which influence us
nevertheless. Everyone of us, when he dreams, has immediate knowledge of
the unconscious as here defined. Certainly we pass into unconsciousness
when we sleep. Yet something is unquestionably going on inside our
heads. One wakens and says, "What strange, or exciting, or delightful
dreams I have had!" Bergson says that sleep is due to the relaxing of
attention to our environment. Yet in dreams attention is never turned
away from ourselves. Possibly instead of the word "unconscious" the term
"unattended" might be used with less danger of confusion.

Consciousness is, therefore, not the whole of our psychic activity. Much
of our behavior is reflex and automatic. James used to be fond of
showing how much even of our higher psychic activity was reflex in its
nature. We may be conscious of various portions of our psychic material,
but never of all of it at once. Attention is like a spotlight thrown on
a semi-darkened stage, moving here and there, revealing the figures upon
which it is directed in vivid contrast with the darkly moving objects
which animate the regions outside its circle. A speaker during his
discourse will straighten his tie, make various gestures, and toy with
any object which happens to be lying on the desk, all without being
aware of his movements, until his attention is called to the fact.
Absent-minded persons habitually amuse us by frequently performing
complete and rather complex series of actions while wholly oblivious to
what they are doing. Everyone can recall numerous instances of
absent-mindedness in his own experience.

Now all pathological types of mental life have in common this quality of
absent-mindedness, and it is held that the thing said or done
absent-mindedly has in every instance, even when normal, a meaning which
is unconscious. But the unconscious or unattended is by no means
confined to the infrequent and the trivial. As temperament, or
character, its activity is a determining factor in all our thought and
conduct. Dream fancies do not really cease when we awake; the dream
activity goes on all about our conscious thoughts, our associations now
hovering near long-forgotten memories, now pulled in the direction of
some unrecognized bit of personal conceit, now skipping on tiptoe over
something forbidden and wicked and passing across without looking in;
only a part of our mental processes ever directly finding expression in
our conscious acts and words. The unchosen and the illogical run along
with the desired and the logical material, only we have learned not to
pay attention to such things. Under all our logical structures there
flows a ceaseless stream of dream stuff. Our conscious thought is like
little planks of attention laid end to end on the stones which here and
there rise above the surface of our thinking. The mind skips across to a
desired conclusion, not infrequently getting its feet wet, and, on
occasion, upsetting a plank or slipping off and falling in altogether.

We have only to relax our attention a little to enter the world of day
dreams, of art, and religion; we can never hold it so rigid as to be
wholly rational for long.

Those interested in the general psychology of the unconscious are
referred to the writings of such authorities in this field as Freud,
Jung, Adler, Dr. A. A. Brill, and Dr. William White. In fact, the
literature dealing with psychoanalysis is now so widely read that,
unless the reader has received his information about this branch of
science from hostile sources alone, it is to be assumed that he has a
fairly accurate acquaintance with its general history and theory. We
must confine our discussions to those aspects of unconscious behavior
which can be shown by analogy with the psychoneurosis to be determinants
of crowd-thinking. As the details and technical discussions of
psychoanalytical material belong strictly to the psychiatric clinic, any
attempt at criticism by the medical layman of the scientific processes
by which they are established is of course impossible. Consequently, I
have sought to make use of only those principles which are now so well
established as to become rather generally accepted commonplaces of

All analysis reveals the fact that the unconscious of the individual is
concerned primarily with himself. This is true in the psychosis, and
always in dreams. Freud says:

Every dream is absolutely egotistical; in every dream the
beloved ego appears, even though it be in a disguised form. The
wishes that are realized in dreams are regularly the wishes of
this ego; it is only a deceptive appearance if interest in
another person is thought to have caused the dream.

Freud then proceeds to give analyses of several dreams in which the
naive egoism of childhood which lies at the core of the unconscious
psyche is apparently absent, and shows that in each and every case it is
there. The hero of our dreams, notwithstanding all appearances to the
contrary, is always ourself.

Brill, in his book, Psychoanalysis, says of the neurosis:

Both hysteria and compulsion neurosis belong to the defense
neuropsychoses; their symptoms originate through the psychic
mechanism of defense, that is, through the attempt to repress a
painful idea which was incompatible with the ego of the patient.
There is still another more forceful and more successful form of
defense wherein the ego misplaces the incompatible idea with its
emotions and acts as though the painful idea had never come to
pass. When this occurs the person merges into a psychosis which
may be called "hallucinatory confusion."

Thus the psychoneurosis is in all its forms, I believe, regarded as a
drama of the ego and its inner conflicts. The egoism of the unconscious
belongs alike to the normal and the unadjusted. The mental abnormalities
appear when the ego seeks to escape some such conflict by means of a
closed system of ideas or symbolic acts which will divert attention from
the unwelcome psychic material. Adler, in The Neurotic Constitution,
is even, if possible, more emphatic in affirming the egoism of the
unconscious as revealed in neurotics. His thesis is that the mainspring
of all the efforts of achievement and the source of all the
vicissitudes of the psyche is a desire to be important, or will to "be
above," not wholly unlike Nietzsche's theory of the "will to power." The
neurosis goes back to some organic defect or other cause of childish
humiliation. As a result, the cause of such humiliation, a defective
bodily organ, or whatever it may be, gains special attention. The whole
psyche is modified in the process of adjustment. In cases where the
psyche remains normal, adjustment is achieved through stimulation to
extra effort to overcome the disadvantage, as in the triumph of
Demosthenes, Byron, Pope.

On the contrary, this disadvantage may result in a fixed feeling of
inferiority. Such a feeling may be brought about in the sensitive child
by a variety of circumstances, physical facts such as smallness of
stature, adenoids, derangements of the alimentary organs, undersized
genitals, homeliness of feature, or any physical deformity or weakness;
again by such circumstances as domineering parents or older brothers and
sisters. The child then thinks always of himself. He forms the habit of
comparing himself with others. He creates, as a protection against the
recognition of this feeling of inferiority, what Adler calls the
"masculine protest."

The feeling which the individual has of his own inferiority,
incompetency, the realization of his smallness, of his weakness,
of his uncertainty, thus becomes the appropriate working basis
which, because of the intrinsically associated feelings of
pleasure and pain, furnishes the inner impulse to advance toward
an imaginary goal....

In all similar attempts (and the human psyche is full of them),
it is the question of the introduction of an unreal and abstract
scheme into actual life.... No matter from what angle we observe
the psychic development of a normal or neurotic person, he is
always found ensnared in the meshes of his particular fiction--a
fiction from which the neurotic is unable to find his way back
to reality and in which he believes, while the sound and normal
person utilizes it for the purpose of reaching a definite goal
... the thing which impels us all, and especially the neurotic
and the child, to abandon the direct path of induction and
deduction and use such devices as the schematic fiction,
originates in the feeling of uncertainty, and is the craving for
security, the final purpose of which is to escape from the
feeling of inferiority in order to ascend to the full height of
the ego consciousness, to complete manliness, to attain the
ideal of being "above."...

Even our judgments concerning the value of things are determined
according to the standard of the imaginary goal, not according
to "real" feelings or pleasurable sensations.

That repressed sexuality plays an important part in the conflicts of the
ego is well known to all who are acquainted with analytical psychology.
According to Freud, the sexual impulse dates from earliest childhood and
is an essential element in every stage of self-appreciation. A summary
of the process by which the infantile ego develops to maturity is as
follows: The child is by nature "polymorphous perverse"--that is, both
physically and psychically he possesses elements which in the mature
individual would be considered perversions. Physiologically, what are
known as "erogenous zones"--tissue which is capable of what in mature
life is sexual excitation--are diffused through the organism. As the
child passes through the "latent period" of later childhood and
adolescence, these "erogenous zones" are concentrated as it were in the
organs which are to serve the purpose of reproduction. If for any reason
this process of concentration is checked, and remains in later life
incomplete, the mature individual will be afflicted with certain
tendencies to sex perversion.

Similarly the psychosexual passes through a metamorphosis in normal
development. The erotic interest of the child, at first quite without
any object at all, is soon attached to one or the other of the parents,
then, in the "narcissus period" is centered upon the individual himself,
after which, normally, but not without some storm and stress, it becomes
detached and capable of "object love"--that is, love of a person of the
opposite sex. This psychic process is by no means a smooth and easy
matter. It is attended at every stage with such dangers that a very
large number of people never achieve it entire. Various kinds of "shock"
and wrong educational influence, or overindulgence on the part of the
parents, may cause the psychosexual interest of the ego--or "libido"--to
remain "fixed" at some point in its course. It may retain vestiges of
its early undifferentiated stage, appearing then in the perverted forms
of "masochism"--sexual enjoyment of self-torture--or "sadism"--sexual
pleasure in torturing others. Or the libido may remain fixed upon the
parent, rendering the individual in some degree incapable of a normal
mature love life. He has never quite succeeded in severing his infantile
attachment to his mother and transferring his interest to the world of
social relations and mature experiences. If he meets with a piece of
misfortune, he is likely to seek imaginary security and compensation by
a "regression" of the libido and a revival of childlike affection for
the mother image. As this return is, in maturity, unconsciously resisted
by the horror of incest, a conflict results. The individual then
develops certain mechanisms or "complex formations" in defense of his
ego against this painful situation. The withdrawal of the libido from
the ordinary affairs of life renders the latter valueless. Thoughts of
death and like compulsory mechanisms ensue. The patient has become a

Psychoanalysts make much of this latter situation. They term it the
"Oedipus complex." They assert that in its severer forms it is a common
feature of psychoneurosis, while in less marked form, according to Jung,
it underlies, and is the real explanation of the "birth of tragedy,"
being also the meaning of much religious symbolism, including the Divine
Drama of Christian tradition. It is not, therefore, only the
psychoneurotic whose unconscious takes the form of the "Oedipus
complex." Under certain conditions it is manifest in normal people. I
have already indicated that the crowd is one of those conditions, and
shall have something a little more specific to say about this later on.

Again the growing libido may become fixed in the "narcissus stage."
Between the period of love of parents and object love, the adolescent
youth passes through a period when he is "in love with himself." The
fact that many people remain in some measure fixed in this period of
their development is not surprising when we remember that self-feeling
occupies a central place in the unconscious at all times. Many of the
world's greatest men have doubtless been characters in which there was a
slightly more than average fixation at this point. Inordinate ambition
is, I should say, an evidence of such a fixation. If one possesses great
natural ability he may under such circumstances be able to forge ahead
to his goal, overcoming the conflicts which such a fixation always
raises, and show no greater evidence of pathology in his career than is
seen in the usual saying that "genius is always a little queer." The
typical crowd-leader would, on analysis, I think, show something of this
"narcissus complex," as would doubtless the great run of fanatics,
bigots, and doctrinaires, "hundred per cent" crowd-men all.

According to Brill, these "auto erotic" persons are always homosexual,
their homosexuality manifesting itself in various ways. The overt
manifestations of this tendency are known as perversions. Certain
persons who have suppressed or sublimated these tendencies, by means of
certain defense mechanisms, or "fictions," as Adler would call them, get
along very well so long as the defense mechanism functions. There are
cases when this unconsciously constructed defense breaks down. An inner
conflict is then precipitated, a marked form of which is the common type
of insanity, "paranoia." Persons suffering with paranoia are
characterized by an insatiable demand for love along with a psychic
incapacity to give love. They have an exaggerated sense of their own
importance which is sustained by a wholly unreal but deadly logical
system of a priori ideas, which constitute the "obsessions" common to
this type of mentality. The inner conflict becomes external--that is, it
is "projected." The paranoiac projects his own inner hostility and lack
of adjustment upon others--that is, he attributes his own feeling of
hostility to some one else, as if he were the object, not the author, of
his hatred. He imagines that he is persecuted, as the following example
will show. The passage here quoted is taken from a pamphlet which was
several years ago given to me by the author. He ostensibly wished to
enlist my efforts in a campaign he believed himself to be conducting to
"expose" the atrocious treatment of persons, like himself, who were
imprisoned in asylums as the innocent victims of domestic conspiracy. By
way of introducing himself the author makes it known that he has several
times been confined in various hospitals, each time by the design and
instigation of his wife, and after stating that on the occasion
described he was very "nervous and physically exhausted" and
incidentally confessing that he was arrested while attempting homicide
"purely in self-defense," he gives this account of his incarceration:

I was locked in a cold cell, and being in poor health, my
circulation was poor, and the officer ordered me to go to bed
and I obeyed his orders, but I began to get cold, and believing
then, as I still believe, that the coffee I got out of the
coffee tank for my midnight lunch had been "doped," and fearful
that the blood in my veins which began to coagulate would stop
circulating altogether, I got out of bed and walked the floor to
and fro all the remainder of the night and by so doing I saved
my life. For had I remained in bed two hours I would have been a
dead man before sunrise next morning. I realized my condition
and had the presence of mind to do everything in my power to
save my life and put my trust in God, and asked his aid in my
extremity. But for divine aid, I would not now have the
privilege of writing my awful experiences in that hell-hole of a

The officer who arrested me without any warrant of law, and
without any unlawful act on my part was the tool of some person
or persons who were either paid for their heinous crime, or of
the landlady of the ---- hotel (he had been a clerk there) who
allowed gambling to go on nearly every night, and thought I was
a detective or spy, and so was instrumental in having me thrown
into jail.

I begged so hard not to be locked in the cell that I was allowed
to stay in the corridor in front of the cells. I observed
chloral dripping through the roof of the cell-house in different
places, and as I had had some experience with different drugs, I
detected the smell of chloral as soon as I entered the

Sometime after midnight some one stopped up the stovepipe and

the door of the coal stove was left open so that the coal gas
issued from the stove, so that breathing was difficult in the
jail. The gases from the stove and other gases poisoned the air
... and your humble servant had the presence of mind to tear up
a hair mattress and kept my nostrils continually filled with
padding out of the mattress. I would often and instantly change
the filling in one nostril, and not during the long hours of
that awful night did I once open my mouth. In that manner I
inhaled very little gases. Why in my weakened condition and my
poor health anyone wanted to deprive me of my life I am at a
loss to know, but failing to kill me, I was taken after nearly
three days of sojourn in that hell-hole to the courthouse in
----. But such thoughts as an innocent man in my condition would
think, in among criminals of all sorts, can better be imagined
than described.... I thought of Christ's persecutors and I
thought how the innocent suffer because of the wicked.

In general we may say that the various forms of psychoneurosis are
characterized by a conflict of the ego with primitive impulses
inadequately repressed. In defense against these impulses, which though
active remain unconsciously so, the individual constructs a fictitious
system of ideas, of symbolic acts, or bodily symptoms. These systems are
attempts to compromise the conflict in the unconscious, and in just the
degree that they are demanded for this function, they fail of their
function of adjusting the individual to his external world. Thought and
behavior thus serve the purpose of compensating for some psychic loss,
and of keeping up the individual's self feeling. Though the unconscious
purpose is to enhance the ego consciousness, the mechanisms through
which this end is achieved produce through their automatic and
stereotyped form a shrinking of personality and a serious lack of
adjustment to environment.

Now it is not at all the aim of this argument to try to prove that
crowds are really insane. Psychoanalysts commonly assert that the
difference between the normal and the abnormal is largely one of degree
and of success in adjustment. We are told that the conflict exists also
in normal people, with whom, however, it is adequately repressed and
"sublimated"--that is, normal people pass on out of the stages in which
the libido of the neurotic becomes fixed, not by leaving them behind,
but by attaching the interests which emerge in such stages to ends which
are useful in future experience. The neurotic takes the solitary path of
resolving the conflict between his ego and the impulses which society
demands shall be repressed.

It is altogether conceivable that another path lies open--that of
occasional compromise in our mutual demands on one another. The force
of repression is then relaxed by an unconscious change in the
significance of social ideas. Such a change must of course be mutual and
unconscious. Compromise mechanisms will again be formed serving a
purpose similar to the neurosis. As in the neurosis, thought and action
will be compulsory, symbolic, stereotyped, and more or less in conflict
with the demands of society as a whole, though functioning in a part of
it for certain purposes. Many of the characteristics of the unconscious
will then appear and will be similar in some respects to those of
neurosis. It is my contention that this is what happens in the crowd,
and I will now point out certain phases of crowd-behavior which are
strikingly analogous to some of the phenomena which have been described

Next: The Egoism Of The Crowd-mind

Previous: How Crowds Are Formed

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