Overcomingfear.ca Home Psychotherapy Fear Understanding Crowds Psychology How to Succeed Imagination


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.



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