In his 1895 treatise titled, Psychology of Crowds, the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon asserts, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” Crowd psychology is a relatively new science, and Le Bon is one of its first scholars. In this video, we will discuss Le Bon’s thoughts regarding crowd psychology, and we will also interpret a few modern mass movements through the lens of Le Bon’s work.
A crowd is simply a gathering of individuals. But from a psychological perspective, the word ‘crowd’ denotes much more. According to Le Bon, a crowd is an assembly that possesses characteristics very different from those possessed by the individuals who compose the crowd. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct.”
There are three causes that produce the distinct characteristics of a crowd. The first cause is anonymity. “The individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. The sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely in crowds.” Anonymity explains the looting of businesses that often occurs during urban riots. Isolated, the individuals would not steal from these businesses because of moral considerations or fear of imprisonment. But, in a crowd, the individual loses both his sense of moral responsibility and his fear of consequences because of the anonymity that a crowd provides to its individuals.
The second cause of a crowd’s special characteristics is contagion. “In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.” Contagion accounts for the peculiar phenomenon of fads. Pet Rocks are a well-known and utterly ridiculous fad that swept across America. Between April 1975 and February 1976, Gary Dahl sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks. Isolated, individuals would never pay money for a rock. But, as Pet Rocks demonstrate, an entirely irrational act can become contagious in a crowd.
The third and final cause of a crowd’s characteristics is suggestibility. “The most careful observations seem to prove that an individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself — either in consequence of the magnetic influence given out by the crowd, or from some other cause of which we are ignorant — in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotist.” Suggestibility explains the powerful influence that demagogues have over crowds. Nazi Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, was able to transform an entire country of individuals – most of whom had never entertained the idea of killing a fellow man, much less participate in murder – into a prejudiced, violent, and genocidal crowd.
But a crowd need not always be irrational, violent, and immoral. “Doubtless a crowd is often criminal, but it is often heroic, too. It is crowds rather than isolated individuals that may be induced to run the risk of death to secure the triumph of a creed or an idea, that may be fired with enthusiasm for glory and honor. Such heroism is without doubt somewhat unconscious, but it is of such heroism that history is made.” The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta provides an excellent example of the bravery and heroism that crowds can elicit from individuals. Spartan society cultivated in its citizens a sense of community and a denial of self-interests in favor of the group’s interests. Essentially, Sparta created a powerful and obedient crowd. And this ‘crowd’ of Spartans is regarded as the bravest and most heroic assembly of men and women in history.