Gustave Le Bon: Psychology of Crowds

Le Bon theorised that the new entity, the “psychological crowd”, which emerges from incorporating the assembled population not only forms a new body but also creates a collective “unconsciousness”. As a group of people gather together and coalesces to form a crowd, there is a “magnetic influence given out by the crowd” that transmutes every individual’s behaviour until it becomes governed by the “group mind”. This model treats the crowd as a unit in its composition which robs every individual member of their opinions, values and beliefs; as Le Bon states: “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will”.

Le Bon detailed three key processes that create the psychological crowd: i) Anonymity, ii) Contagion and iii) Suggestibility. Anonymity provides to rational individuals a feeling of invincibility and the loss of personal responsibility. An individual becomes primitive, unreasoning, and emotional. This lack of self-restraint allows individuals to “yield to instincts” and to accept the instinctual drives of their “unconscious”. For Le Bon, the crowd inverts Darwin’s law of evolution and becomes atavistic, proving Ernst Haeckel’s embryological theory: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. Contagion refers to the spread in the crowd of particular behaviours and individuals sacrifice their personal interest for the collective interest. Suggestibility is the mechanism through which the contagion is achieved; as the crowd coalesces into a singular mind, suggestions made by strong voices in the crowd create a space for the unconscious to come to the forefront and guide its behaviour. At this stage, the psychological crowd becomes homogeneous and malleable to suggestions from its strongest members. “The leaders we speak of,” says Le Bon, “are usually men of action rather than of words. They are not gifted with keen foresight… They are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.”