The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

Last weeks have been an avalanche of all the things that I have been doing in January in combination with work. Young Leadership crap, weekend get-aways (Graz, Freiburg, Colmar, Hamburg, Bilbao), CISSP, project in Allschwil with a daily 4 hour round-trip traveling time … now things are starting to slow down a bit (a lot) or maybe also my motivation (or my panic) is fading.

Nevertheless, one good thing when travelling is that you can really sit down and read. I don’t have a habit to read at home, but sitting in a train or a plane gives you the right setup (no options for distractions) to swipe your kindle or open the bookmarked page on a book. I finished the titled book after maybe 2 months. I can’t exactly remember what the exact trigger was for this book (I believe it was the Brexit topic, US selection and something else) and I looked up mass psychology, interested in how the manipulation of the crowd occurs and how people behave as a group.

The book is from 1895 and available on project Gutenberg as a free resource. On reddit, people deemed it as a primer on mass psychology and indeed, some conclusions do still apply today. However, the book is written in a qualitative fashion, where a lot of conclusions are drawn. Examples are given sometimes, but in a descriptive fashion without experiments to test the established hypothesis. This gives me a hard time to convince myself that the theories are really true. In the end, the only thing that helps me is to compare them with my own experience/observations.

The summary that I can give now, based on my fast fading memory, is based on the passages that I highlighted. Also looking back at them remembers me a lot of things that I already forgot. Also, compare to what other people on the internet have drawn out of the book, was interesting as well. So, below are the (a lot) passages, where comments have only been given on a few:

  • “A sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. […] A crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.” {Responsibility … this is a topic that has caught a lot of my thought. I really don’t sympathize with people that do not act to be responsible themselves … but again, how do you define responsibility? }
  • “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” {difficult to say … within a crowd, watching a football game, or play the danish clapping cheered by a crowd, I do not feel that I am getting infected, strong emotions make me a bit nervous to be honest. Also, seeing people chasing or rushing does not affect me at all, I mostly think how stupid it is …}
  • “The conscious personality has entirely vanished; will and discernment are lost. All feelings and thoughts are bent in the direction determined by the hypnotiser.”
  • “The crowd is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual, but that, from the point of view of feelings and of the acts these feelings provoke, the crowd may, according to circumstances, he better or worse than the individual.”
  • “The Sentiments and Morality of Crowds:
    • Impulsiveness, Mobility and Irritability of Crowds
      • The notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in a crowd. An isolated individual knows well enough that alone he cannot set fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do so, he will easily resist the temptation. Making part of a crowd, he is conscious of the power given him by number, and it is sufficient to suggest to him ideas of murder or pillage for him to yield immediately to temptation.
      • 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.
    • Crowds are credulous and readily influenced by suggestion
    • The exaggeration and ingenuousness of the sentiments of Crowds
      • Whether the feelings exhibited by a crowd be good or bad, they present the double character of being very simple and very exaggerated.
      • Given to exaggeration in its feelings, a crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. An orator wishing to move a crowd must make an abusive use of violent affirmations. To exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetitions, and never to attempt to prove anything by reasoning are methods of argument well known to speakers at public meetings.
    • The intolerance, dictatorialness, and conservatism of Crowds
      • Every one is aware of the intolerance that accompanies religious beliefs, and of the despotic empire they exercise on men’s minds.
      • Crowds exhibit a docile respect for force, and are but slightly impressed by kindness, which for them is scarcely other than a form of weakness. Their sympathies have never been bestowed on easy-going masters, but on tyrants who vigorously oppressed them.
    • The Morality of Crowds
      • Taking the word “morality” to mean constant respect for certain social conventions and the permanent repression of selfish impulses, it is quite evident that crowds are too impulsive and too mobile to be moral.”
  • “The Ideas of the Crowd: Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise effective influence on condition that they assume a very absolute, uncompromising and simple shape. They present themselves then in the guise of images and are only accessible to the masses under this form. […] A long time is necessary for ideas to establish themselves in the minds of crowds, but just as long a time is needed for them to be eradicated. “
  • “The Reasoning Power of Crowds: Between the ideas associated by crowds there are only apparent bonds of analogy or succession. […] Knowing from experience that ice, a transparent body, melts in the mouth, concludes that glass, also a transparent body, should melt in the mouth. “
  • “The Imagination of Crowds: Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be impressed by images. It is only images that terrify or attract them and become motives of action. […] For this reason theatrical representations, in which the image is shown in its most clearly visible shape, always have an enormous influence on crowds.”
  • “Intolerance and fanaticism are the necessary accompaniments of the religious sentiments. They are inevitably displayed by those who believe themselves in the possession of the secret of earthly or eternal happiness.”
  • “The primary danger of this system of education – very properly qualified as Latin – consists in the fact that it is based on the fundamental psychological error that the intelligence is developed by the learning by heart of text-books. Adopting this view, the endeavour has been made to enforce a knowledge of as many hand-books as possible. From the primary school till he leaves the university a young man does nothing but acquire books by heart without his judgement or personal initiative being ever called into play. Education consists for him in reciting by heart and obeying.” {a very up-to-date topic indeed}
  • “The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance. Words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy, socialism, equality, liberty, &c., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it. Yet it is certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short syllables, as if they contained the solution of all problems. “
  • “To give to men that portion of hope and illusion without which they cannot live, such is the reason for the existence of gods, heroes and poets. During 50 years science appeared to undertake this task. But science has been compromised in hearts hungering after the ideal, because it does not dare to be lavish enough of promises, because it cannot lie.” {Science cannot lie? Aren’t there more and more “falsified” statistics out there? So many contexts and boundary conditions omitted, solely to present everything in a better light?}
  • “Notwithstanding all its progress, philosophy has been unable as yet to offer the masses any ideal that can charm them; but, as they must have their illusions at all cost, they turn instinctively, as the insect seeks the light, to the rhetoricians who accord them what they want.”
  • “Experience constitutes almost the only effective process by which a truth may be solidly established in the mind of the masses and illusions grown too dangerous be destroyed. […] However, it is necessary that the experience should take place on a very large scale and be very frequently repeated. The experiences undergone by one generation are useless, as a rule, for the generation that follows, which is the reason why historical facts, cited with a view to demonstration, serve no purpose.”
  • “It is necessary first of all to thoroughly comprehend the sentiments by which they are animated, to pretend to share these sentiments, then to endeavour to modify them by calling up, by means of rudimentary associations, certain eminently suggestive notions, to be capable, if need be, of going back to the point of view from which a start was made, and, above all, to divine from instant to instant the sentiments to which one’s discourse is giving birth. “
  • “The leader has most often started as one of the led. He has himself been hypnotised by the idea, whose apostle he has since become. It has taken possession of him to such a degree that everything outside it vanishes, and that every contrary opinion appears to him an error or a superstition. […] The leaders we speak of are more frequently men of action than thinkers. They are not gifted with keen foresight, nor could they be, as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity. They are especially recruited from the ranks of the morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness. However absurd may be the idea they uphold or the goal they pursue, their convictions are so strong that all reasoning is lost upon them. “
  • “As soon as a man ceases to be isolated he speedily falls under the influence of a leader. The majority of men, especially among the masses, do not possess clear and reasoned ideas on any subject whatever outside their own specialty. The leader serves them as guide. It is just possible that he may be replaced, though very inefficiently, by the periodical publications which manufacture opinions for their readers and supply them with ready-made phrases which dispense them of the trouble of reasoning.”
  • “Those ringleaders and agitators may be divided into two clearly defined classes. The one includes the men who are energetic and possess, but only intermittently much strength of will, the other the men, far rarer than the preceding, whose strength of will is enduring. “
  • “Whether they be intelligent or narrow-minded is of no importance: the world belongs to them. The persistent will-force they possess is an immensely rare and immensely powerful faculty to which everything yields. What a strong and continuous will is capable of is not always properly appreciated. Nothing resists it; neither nature, gods, nor man.”
  • “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 demonstrations, the more weight it carries. The religious books and the legal codes of all ages have always resorted to simple affirmation. […] 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.”
  • “In the case of men collected in a crowd all emotions are very rapidly contagious, which explains the suddenness of panics.”
  • “Imitation, to which so much influence is attributed in social phenomena, is in reality a mere effect of contagion. […] 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.”
  • “Contagion is so powerful that it forces upon individuals not only certain opinions, but certain modes of feelings as well.”
  • “Prestige in reality is a sort of domination exercised on our mind by an individual, a work, or an idea. This domination entirely paralyses our critical faculty, and fills our soul with astonishment and respect. […] Acquired prestige and is that resulting form name, fortune, and reputation. It may independent of personal prestige. Personal prestige, on the contrary, is something essentially peculiar to the individual.” {Watch the film <The Prestige>, it is exactly on this maniac topic of pursuing it. And so well played as well. }
  • “The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige. “
  • “The only real tyrants that humanity has known have always been the memories of its dead or the illusions it has forged itself. “
  • “The only important classification to be made of heterogeneous crowds, apart from that based on racial considerations, is to separate them into anonymous crowds, such as street crowds, and crowds not anonymous – deliberative assemblies and juries, for example. The sentiment of responsibility absent from crowds of the first description and developed in those of the second often gives a very different tendency to their respective acts. “
  • “Let us examine by what methods electoral crowds are to be persuaded. It will be easy to deduce their psychology from the methods that are most successful. It is of primary importance that the candidate should possess prestige. Personal prestige can only be replaced by that resulting from wealth. Talent and even genius are not elements of success of serious importance. “
  • “The reason why the electors, of whom a majority are working men or peasants, so rarely choose a man from their own ranks to represent them is that such a person enjoys no prestige among them. “
  • “It does not follow because an individual knows Greek or mathematics, is an architect, a veterinary surgeon, a doctor, or a barrister, that he is endowed with a special intelligence of social questions. […] their science is only a very attenuated form of our universal ignorance.
  • “Race and the slavery of our daily necessities are the mysterious master-causes that rule our destiny.”
  • “In consequence parliaments are more especially representative of extreme opinions. […] quote: during the fifty years that I have sat at Westminster, I have listened to thousands of speeches; but few of them have changed my opinion, not one of them has changed my vote.”
  • “It will always be easy to make a crowd accept general assertions, presented in striking terms, although they have never been verified, and are perhaps not susceptible of verification.”
  • “It is all to the interest of the leaders to indulge in the most improbable exaggerations. The speaker of whom I have just cited a sentence was able to affirm, without arousing violent protestations, that bankers and priests had subsidized the throwers of bombs, and that the directors of the great financial companies deserve the same punishment as anarchists. Affirmations of this kind are always effective with crowds. The affirmations is never too violent, the declamation never too threatening.”

And another point that I remember was regarding Democracy. Even though that the crowd (the voters) are not as intelligent as the individual, the draft of the vote or law serves a baseline of “defense/protection” against stupidity. (Who are we to define what is stupid anyway?)

So much on this one, in the end, the Young Leadership Board in the company actually gives me somethings to think about as well. In consulting, people management is apparently really bad. Partners know it, but they don’t know how to solve it. Is it because of the very nature of the business that many projects are aligned on the last minute? Or is it really because of the sheer inability of organization and communication? Or is it because the client wishes for so many things and changes ideas always in the last minute, as many of us do ourselves? Maybe this is the next question to be looked at. My current client is actually also recommending some books for me. I have ordered “conspiracies of conspiracies”, let’s see how the Trump election and Brexit actually shaped up, based on the theories of the book.

Me, sitting in the office, finishing up this post …