Gustave Le Bon

March 5, 2013 |  by

Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895) set the standard for crowd psychology. Now 118 years old, the French writer’s bestseller describes the irrationality of crowds, and the substitution of group mind for individual consciousness, ideas that dominate the field of crowd psychology to this day.

He’s been called the ‘father of groupthink.’

Among the important contributions in The Crowd:

  • Establishing the essence of group behavior. “The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals..”
  • Establishing the unity of mass mind. “[Crowds form] a single being, and [are] subjected to the law of the mental unity.”
  • Groups, crowds and nations are guided by “latent forces” which “the ancients denominated destiny, nature, or providence.” In modern terms, we call this the main (or common) idea—the meme. Le Bon writes: “Every civilization is the outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very rarely renewed.”
  • Current ideas create current events. “The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought.” The leading ideas of a nation determine its course and actions.
  • Likewise, institutions and laws are the outcome of a nation’s ideas. Being the result of the “national character,” they cannot change the character, only reflect it.
  • The influence of memes is vertical. “Behind the phenomena which we see clearly are other phenomena that we see indistinctly, and perhaps behind these latter, yet others which we do not see at all.” We call this shadowing.
  • Crowds can gather in the cloud (non-locally). “Thousands of isolated individuals may acquire at certain moments…such, for example, as a great national event—the characteristics of a psychological crowd.”
  • Le Bon was the first to apply the word contagion to behavior and ideas. He also alluded to their viral nature:

Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.

  • Le Bon identified the supermemes.

The great generalized beliefs are very restricted in number. They constitute the real framework of civilization.

General beliefs are the indispensable pillars of civilizations; they determine the trend of ideas.

  • The power of memes is in the unconscious. “An idea…only exerts influence when…it has entered the domain of the unconscious.” We are seduced by hooks.
  • You cannot argue with a meme. “An individual may accept contradiction and discussion; a crowd will never do so.”

One thing stumped Le Bon. Why a person becomes part of a crowd.

It is easy to prove how much the individual forming part of a crowd differs from the isolated individual, but it is less easy to discover the causes of this difference.

Now we know. The empathic nature of the brain (and mirror neurons) makes us resonate with others in a crowd automatically.

It’s important to remember that Le Bon viewed crowds as mobs, of low intelligence. This was the era of the street rabble, the uprising. Le Bon wasn’t acquainted with the highly evolved organizational memes of the 21st century. That’s why he writes:

This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence.

Le Bon also believed that a prime characteristic of crowds was that individuals in a crowd yielded to animal instincts.

In the life of the isolated individual it would be dangerous for him to gratify these instincts, while his absorption in an irresponsible crowd, in which in consequence he is assured of impunity, gives him entire liberty to follow them.

That may have been true of a Parisian revolutionary mob, but not so much at Microsoft. And yet, the idea that crowds are irrational and instinctual remains at the heart of crowd psychology.

Le Bon was, after all, an elitist (a noble thing in 19th century France). He knew the President, Raymond Poincaré, the mathematician Henri Poincaré, the poet Paul Valéry and the philospher Henri Bergson. So he had a particular view of crowds:

By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct.

The mode of reasoning of crowds resembles that of the Esquimaux who, knowing from experience that ice, a transparent body, melts in the mouth, concludes that glass, also a transparent body, should also melt in the mouth.

It will be remarked that among the special characteristics of crowds there are several — such as impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides — which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution — in women, savages, and children, for instance.

He gave instructions on how to control the masses through oratory and wordplay—how calling a thing by another name changes public opinion, how a leader should appear in public to gain a following, how repetition can turn an opinion into truth.

It was Napoleon, I believe, who said that there is only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition. 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.

The last chapter of The Crowd, a primer on politics, is as relevant as anything written today.

His influence was far reaching—and not always for good.

Freud wrote Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922) as a response to Le Bon’s work. Hitler was guided by Le Bon’s ideas on mass manipulation. Reportedly, Mussolini kept a copy of the The Crowd by his bedside.


The Crowd, Gustave Le Bon



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