Gustave Le Bon was an expert in many different subjects from Medicine to Psychology to Physics. He is best known for his book, The Crowd: A Study Of The Popular Mind, which explained crowd psychology and why people behave differently in groups.
A crowd is a group of people united by a common ideology, belief or idea. However, the characteristics of the crowd are far different from the characteristics of the individuals within it. Le Bon said that when part of a crowd, the individual becomes less civilised. Where a person may be cultured outside of a crowd, when part of it they act like a barbarian, behaving on instinct.
These crowd characteristics are produced by three causes. By being aware of these causes, techniques can be used to intentionally manipulate crowds to behave in a particular way. This has been used in the fields of business and politics in the past, with many questioning whether it is ethical to do so.
In the summer of 2011, I watched on television as thousands of people rioted in towns and cities across England for nearly a week. Many shops and businesses were destroyed as a result of arson and looting. People behaved like this in a crowd but why did they not behave like that when they’re on their own? For some it would be a question of morals. For others, it would simply be due to the fear of being arrested and jailed.
Le Bon argues that when in a crowd, the anonymity that the crowd provides the individual (due to the large numbers), means that they lose their fear of the consequences as well as their moral responsibility. This temporary feeling of invincibility causes them to be unable to restrain certain instincts that they otherwise would.
In February 2013, a man in China started selling cans of fresh air for $0.80 due to the bad pollution in the country at the time. Despite admitting that the canned air was a light-hearted stunt, in ten days he managed to sell ten million cans.
In a previous video, I spoke about how in the Netherlands in the 1600s, tulips were seen as a symbol of status. The value of tulips rose so high that people were spending their life savings on tulip bulbs simply because everyone else was buying them, which resulted in a large amount of money lost when the prices eventually crashed.
Both these stories are examples of fads, as a result of contagion. In a crowd, Le Bon believed that every act is contagious, to a point where an individual will sacrifice his personal interest for the interest of the crowd. Fresh air in a can was a nonsensical fad and buying a can of fresh air was a nonsensical act that an individual would not do on their own. However, when part of a crowd, even irrational acts become contagious.
The word “Demagogue” was born in ancient Greece. It comes from the words “demos” meaning the people, and “agogos” meaning leader. In the 20th century, there are many examples of demagogues who had a powerful influence over crowds due to suggestibility. They have transformed a nation of individuals, most of which had no intention of ever murdering a fellow human being, to act ruthlessly and inhumanely by pushing for brutality. The mob mentality that arose turned the crowd into a bigoted, vicious and genocidal horde.
Le Bon claimed that after being part of a crowd for a period of time, the individual enters a state, similar to being hypnotised, where they are mesmerised by the leader of the crowd. The power and influence that leaders of these crowds have can lead to terrible atrocities. The leader can influence the crowd to think and feel a certain way. The crowd then often turns those thoughts into acts.