In October this year (1998), an accident occurred in Gothenburg, Sweden, where approximately 67 individuals died. About 200 people were gathered in a room when the place took fire. Having only one exit, people rushed at the same time towards the entrance. The entrance was blocked and people were falling on top of each other. A tragedy was a fact. What caused the people to rush to the exit? Did they become too emotional? Did they think that that was the most optimal choice? In this essay, we are discussing Gustave Le Bon’s theory of crowd behavior. First, we will take a closer look at Le Bon’s view that crowds are irrational, emotional, and unconscious and secondly we will discuss his theory in comparison to other theories or research that has been developed or done in the area.
According to Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), the crowd submerges the individual’s rationality and (private) self-awareness. It is worth noting that a psychological crowd is not only a group of people together. For Le Bon, a psychological crowd is a group of people that “under certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it” (Le Bon, p. 2, 1895). In the phase where the individuals lose their selves, the crowd reaches the state that Le Bon called the collective mind. In this state of mind the individual feels, thinks, and acts differently compared to if he were alone. The emotions, thoughts, and acts spread like a disease in the crowd – the result being that everybody behaves in the same manner. This is what Le Bon called contagion.
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When the crowd is in the same state of mind, they replace private self-awareness with primitive instinctual urges. According to Le Bon, the psychological crowd holds characteristics which are savagery, primitive and uncivilized (e.g. no self-awareness, unconscious). “Crowds are only powerful for destruction. Their rule is always tantamount to a barbaric phase” (Le Bon, p. xviii, 1895). This process of self-immolation that individuals go through to merge into the crowd is caused by several reasons. Firstly, group membership delivers anonymity, which gives the member ‘invincible power’, and less personal responsibility. Secondly, ideas and feelings are spread rapidly in a crowd (contagion) and the members get quickly affected. Finally, there is the phenomenon of suggestibility i.e. when a person has lost his conscious personality he is easily open to whatever suggestions the crowd comes up with.
Cognitive factors monitor our crowd behavior. Contrary to Le Bon’s view, the cognitive approach does not see fear per se as a cause behind panic. What it views as important are people’s ideas about the escape routes. If everybody knows that there are several exits, no panic will occur. One might think that in a mine or in a submarine that has been exposed to an explosion, panic would start. Not so, says this theory. People might experience terror and/or apathy in the mine or submarine, but for panic to occur the exit(s) must be limited or closing. If that is the case each individual will see that the only option is to run to the door. If everybody thinks like this, then panic will occur. Were the people in the fire accident (mentioned in the beginning) behaving irrationally? According to some social psychologists (e.g. Brown), we make the best decision(s) possible in a specific situation. For example, the best solution if caught in a fire would be – presupposing that everybody trusted each other – to take turns to exit the door (instead of all running towards it at the same time).
If the trust is lacking, the second-best decision is to run to the exit, hoping to be one of the firsts to reach ‘home’. Unfortunately, if everybody thinks like this the exit will be blocked and a tragedy will be a fact. Submerging the self consists of a lack of self-regulation. What Le Bon named as ‘loss of self’ later thinkers (e.g. Fromm) called deindividuation. They also equated deindividuation with anonymity, which Le Bon also thought was the case. Carver and Scheier (1981) have proposed that the individual can best be understood as a self-regulating system. This is the outline for the control theory. What exactly makes an individual regulate himself? The most important tool is the negative feedback loop. Imagine a thermostat. It measures the air and when it senses the difference between the actual temperature and the preset temperature, it changes position so that there are no differences at all between the actual and present temperature.
According to the control theory, this is a metaphor showing how the individual regulates his behavior. We might think of the issue as an issue of integrity. If we have a conviction (e.g. ‘be honest’) we will constantly check if our actions are compatible with our idea. If the gap between what is and what ought to be is too large, we regulate our behavior so that the gap disappears. For example, if we view honesty as a principle but we lie a bit now and then, we will suffer guilt and anxiety and stop lying on principle. Self-regulation consists of comparing one’s actions to a reference standard or norm. According to the control theory, we become deindividuated when we experience an absence of self-regulation at the highest level.
Anonymity is an important factor in deindividuation. Zimbardo (1969) has carried out several experiments in the area of deindividuation and anonymity. One experiment showed that deindividuated people (in this case they were dressed in lab coats and hoods) had a stronger tendency towards aggressive behavior (e.g. total duration of shocking was twice as much for the deindividuated group compared to the identifiability condition). Another experiment that Zimbardo made in the same area was on a group of Belgian soldiers. But the result was the reverse this time – the soldiers had a shorter shocking time than the ‘normal’ people did. It has been said that this is due to the fact that the soldiers already were deindividuated before the test (e.g. members of a group). When they were put on a lab coat and a hood (and away from their fellow soldiers) they suddenly became more self-aware than they were before.
Crowd behavior is an expression of the real self. In contrast to Le Bon’s contagion theory stands the convergence theory. As we have seen, Le Bon thought that crowds were run by a collective mind, and the individual radically changed thoughts, emotions, and actions when he entered a crowd. According to the convergence theory, the people who join a group often have similar needs and personal characteristics as the group. Instead of becoming what the group is (as in Le Bon’s view), the individual, in essence, already is what the group is. Freud, for example, argued that individuals satisfy their basic needs for membership, hostility, and so on when they join a group. As Floyd Allport put it, “The individual in the crowd behaves exactly as he would behave alone, only more so” (Allport 1924: 295. Taken from Hogg & Abrams, 1995).
Crowds can be seen not as mindless because they use their own internal logic (e.g. social norms) instead of a private individual’s self-regulated integrity. Le Bon meant that the individual loses himself in a crowd and becomes mindless. Turner and Killian (1972) have argued for what they call the ‘emergent norm theory. They meant that a crowd is another form of a group and that crowd behavior is a form of group behavior. They thought that group processes created order and purpose in the crowd. The emergent-norm view is different from Le Bon’s contagion theory because it presents the differences between group behavior and individual behavior, not as the difference between mindless people and not mindless, but as the difference of norms. The crowd’s behavior is a result of a social norm. “The norm must be specific to the situation to some degree – hence emergent norm” (Turner 1974:390, taken from Hogg & Adams, 1995).
Let us look at how stock markets work. A rumor is spread saying that there will be less corn produced the next year due to rainy weather. The rumor work as a motor starting the selling (and perhaps buying) of the shares. This shows that a collective – instead of an individual – judgment of market changes are involved in the process. The rumor is a collective decision-making process “which occurs when a collective definition of a situation is required in order to coordinate actions of its members” (Hogg & Abrams, 1995). Crowd behavior seems to be partly explainable with what Le Bon called ‘loss of self’ or what later thinkers called deindividuation. Deindividuation, in turn, seems to consist of three components: causes, internal changes, and external results. Causes include anonymity, less responsibility, and feeling of membership.
Internal changes seem to be reduced self-awareness and new experiences. External results are the kind of extreme behaviors shown in Zimbardo’s experiments. It seems to be more to crowd behavior that Le Bon suggested though. As we have seen, there are suggestions that the crowd’s expression is the individual’s own expression (only more intense in a crowd). We have also seen, in contrast to Le Bon, that a crowd does not necessarily have to be mindless – they just use different norms than the separate individual. The cognitive approach also views, in contrast to Le Bon, the individual in the crowd as making his/her best decision(s) possible in the specific situation. This does not mean that the crowd is mindless, but rather than a set of individuals make their most optimal decision in a certain situation.
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