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Psychology 101: Crowd Psychology and The Theory of Gustave Le Bon

Psychology 101: Introduction to Crowd Psychology

Crowds are often overlooked as a segment of psychology. Most people would like to say that they are independent and trail away from what others do, however, much goes unnoticed when talking about the human behaviour of an individual when placed in a large mass of others. This type of psychology becomes a unique aspect of how one may think purely based off of the interests and situation of a crowd. There are several theories and the concept itself plays a large role in several real-world situations with effective consequences.

Crowd Psychology Definition and Uses

Crowd psychology is essentially the study in the psychology of an individual’s behaviour whilst participating in a region with a large concentration of other individuals. The field has many minor areas of study including negative gatherings, social protests, and panicking urgent crowds. The study could be a relevant insight into how leaders motivate their supporters to do irrational activities or why some riots force civilised people to become more or less barbaric. Some psychologists such as Gabriele Tarde theorise that many people, when put under the pressures and influences of a crowd, give in to the “crowd mind”; sacrificing one’s own interests in favour of what the crowd itself wants or to “override” rationality. Crowd psychology can also be used for good, including waiting in line, community volunteering for causes, and cheering for winning sports teams. One of the most notable theories on this topic is that of Gustave Le Bon and his books The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

Crowd Psychology and The Theory of Gustave Le Bon

Le Bon talks possibilities as to why people behave in a different, ruthless manner with a crowd rather than if they were to be alone. The unusually aggressive characteristics are due to 3 main causes according to Le Bon: anonymity, contagious acts, and suggestibility. By understanding the causes and techniques to achieve such circumstances, crowds could be manipulated to act in certain manners that may benefit another. Those that often optimise on crowd psychology the most are politicians and business leaders who must gather influence and support for their plans and visions. 

Crowd Psychology: Anonymity

The anonymity of a crowd provides security to those individuals that act out of place and aggressive despite having a contradictory character alone. The safety of knowing that you no longer represent yourself but the crowd allows for opportunities to act hostile towards others. There is a smaller risk of being detained or obtaining consequences when associated with an uncontrollable number of people than a sole person. An individual would often never be given a chance to act such a way by themselves, however, whilst with a crowd, the individual gains a feeling of invincibility due to the chaos of their surrounding areas as well as the support from other individuals of the same crowd. 

Crowd Psychology: Contagion

This cause by Le Bon says that if one person decides to do an action in a crowd, many others may follow it assuming it is in the best interest of the crowd. It can go as far to create the “crowd mind” that removes an individual’s personal interests due to what is in favour of the crowd or what others in the crowd may be doing. This can easily be seen in fashion trends. Although these crowds may not always be physical, a community of like-minded fashion-goers may obsess over a singular look or possession which can lead to irrational purchases. Most people would not buy shoes or clothing worth thousands of dollars and yet an individual in a community of expensive fashion interests may be subjected to the contagion acts. The individual would be “pressured” to purchase something they would otherwise not do.

Crowd Psychology: Suggestibility

Suggestibility focuses mainly on the leader’s influence on a crowd. Leaders can utilise the needs and wants of a society to achieve a certain goal by heavy “suggestion” regardless of whether or not any individual of this said society had aligned their original intentions with the goal of the leader. Through the means of propaganda posters, speeches, or any other form of media, leaders can often influence their audience to fit their own needs and goals without explicitly stating what needs to be done. Leaders can convince their fellows that what acts they must do are a cause of the fellow’s thinking rather than the constant pressure to adopt the leaders’ goals. A well-known example is the Holocaust. With Adolf Hitler, the seemingly strong leader to lead Germany to its former glory, and Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Nazi Party, the population of Germany was convinced that the Nazi regime was a legitimate success. Convinced that becoming a Nazi was a well-established status symbol similar to a doctor or lawyer, the nation took in the party as its saviour. The party then continues to use propaganda and other types of suggestions to trick the “crowd” into believing that the Jews were the problem of Germany and that it was okay to have animosity or anti-Semitic views. All the suggestions led to a whole crowd in favour of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

Points Against Le Bon’s Theories

Le Bon’s points are shown to be the basics of crowd psychology and his work on the topic are allegedly the most successful out of all his careers. Despite having such influential work, many doubt the real application of his work. A paper by David Schweingruber and Ronald T. Wohlstein make out flaws in Le Bon’s work, specifically, the fact that the behaviour of a crowd tends to be acrimonious, irrational, and emotionally-driven. The paper from 2005 has become widely regarded as revolutionary work yet fails to prove anything with empirical evidence.

Concluding Remarks

For what crowd psychology is, it holds great power with its three main principles from the theory of Le Bon. This specific psychology reveals the abilities of influence and what it can lead to; changing an individual’s behaviour. Knowing how anonymity, contagion, and suggestibility plays a role in psychological behaviour may allow for chaos and disorder on one end of the spectrum, and order and community service on the other end of the spectrum. Although there are some divisive views towards Le Bon’s principles, they are still heavily regarded as the very fundamentals of crowd psychology.

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