Gustave Le Bon wrote La psychologie des foules in 1895; it appeared the next year in English translation as The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Traders Press republished it along with Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 1994.
Le Bon was no fan of the masses, alternatively dubbed crowds. He saw them as a destructive, barbaric force in human history and feared that in his lifetime they would once again overrun human culture. “Today the claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization.” (p. 15)
In the process of railing against the masses and expressing views that are decidedly racist and sexist, Le Bon offers insights into the herd mentality that is, alas, all too common in the markets and the irrational exuberance that, though infrequent, is even more devastating. So what are these crowds and how do they shape their members?
When a person joins a crowd, according to Le Bon, he gives up his conscious personality and takes on the collective mind of the crowd. Since it is the conscious elements of character that distinguish people one from the other (for instance, intelligence) and the unconscious elements (instincts, passions, and feelings) that they have in common, the person who joins a crowd abandons rational behavior in favor of instinctual behavior. “The heterogeneous is swamped by the homogeneous,” Le Bon claims. And, he continues, “In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated.” (p. 26)
A person is transformed when he becomes a member of a crowd. He acquires “a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint.” He doesn’t feel any individual responsibility; he’s protected by the anonymous crowd. Moreover, “under the influence of a suggestion, he will undertake the accomplishment of certain acts with irresistible impetuosity.” (pp. 27-28) He’s further reinforced by the similar behavior of the other members of the crowd.
In a crowd rumor becomes fact, the possible becomes the inevitable, and the faster an idea circulates—the more hype (or, as Le Bon would say, contagion)—the more incontrovertible it becomes. “Like women, [a crowd] goes at once to extremes.” (p. 43) And like (the myth about) lemmings, the investing crowd usually suffers devastating consequences.
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So, in our first foray into the world of crowds, we have Le Bon’s hypothesis that the crowd is unintelligent and often insidious. The person who joins a crowd relinquishes his individuality, his rationality, and his moral and intellectual restraint. The next post dealing with this theme will look at a specific example of the madness of crowds, the Mississippi scheme. And, as promised, in time I’ll move on to the seemingly conflicting notion of the wisdom of crowds.