Superimposing and projecting
by Chetan Parikh
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In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.


“Let us then try to see how an automatic manner of thinking is created and how one can ‘reason’ using images. There have so far been very few studies of this question, and the description I am going to give will unavoidably be an incomplete one. But we do know enough about the matter to be able to talk about it. At first glance, it seems we can distinguish two processes, which we can call superimposing and projecting.


Superimposing means linking the ideational images that come together for the slenderest of reasons and which, once they have been juxtaposed, make it look as if the reasoning process has moved from premiss to conclusion without going through the intermediate stages. Le Bon's example is worth studying in extenso, as it is very revealing about both the man himself and the kind of thinking he was decrying:


The mode of reasoning of crowds resembles that of the Esquimaux who, knowing from experience that ice, a transparent body, melts in the mouth, conclude that glass, also a transparent body, should also melt in the mouth; or that of the savage who imagines that by eating the heart of a courageous foe he acquires his bravery; or of the workman who, having been exploited by one employer of labour, immediately concludes that all employers exploit their men. (Le Bon, 1952: 66)


One might well wonder about the stereotypes behind Le Bon's reasoning and his conclusion that workers are savages. His own logic is a perfect example of automatic thinking. He selects and amasses a series of clichés and from them creates the image of a primitive mass of workers. A good illustration of what is meant by ‘superimposing’ is the artistic technique known as collage, in which the artist juxtaposes and overlaps bits of photographs, scraps of newspaper, drawings and the like and makes a picture of them.


Projecting reflects the inability of the crowd to distinguish between reality and a representation of it and to recognise the difference between things as they are and as they would like them to be. Since it cannot discriminate in this way, the crowd unconsciously exteriorises its internal ideational images and sees as a datum of the world, an event, something that is merely the product of its wishes and its fantasy. It quite simply takes its desires for reality and acts accordingly. We can consider an example from a situation involving crisis or panic. Let us suppose that, with very little justification, a crowd believes it has discovered that some group or other, perhaps the Jews or the blacks, is threatening it. It ascribes imaginary crimes to them - ritual murders or rape, for example - and eventually organises pogroms or lynchings. The same process helps create legends around some particularly admired person. These are embroidered with striking episodes - for the French, Napoleon's martyr-like exile on St Helena, for the Christians, Christ's crucifixion, and so on-in which he figures as the crowd wants him to be rather than as he actually was. In present-day France, the legend of the ‘people’s de Gaulle’ is beginning to grow up, which some future Balzac will chronicle, just as the real Balzac drew the ‘people’s Napoleon’ from life.”


Le Bon believed that:


The images evoked in their mind by a personage, an event, an accident, are almost as lifelike as the reality. Crowds are to some extent in the position of the sleeper whose reason, suspended for the time being, allows the arousing in his mind of images of extreme intensity which would quickly be dissipated could they be submitted to the action of reflection. (Le Bon, 1952: 67)


This might well happen when the crowd disperses, in which case individual reason would be dominant. Until that time, it would accept everything uncritically, seeking to test its judgements not against experience but against majority opinion. The latter would always be seen as more convincing than reality. Its persuasive force is extraordinarily strong and irresistible to the individual in a crowd.


It is a particular characteristic of automatic thinking to confuse the interior and exterior worlds. The process may not help reflection, but it is advantageous to practice, since it makes it possible to move directly from the idea to the act, to move effortlessly from the imaginary to the real. Incidents like the following lend support to this view:


The story has often been told of the manager of a popular theatre who, in consequence of his only playing sombre dramas, was obliged to have the actor who took the part of the traitor protected on his leaving the theatre, to defend him against the violence of the spectators, indignant at the crimes, imaginary though they were, which the traitor had committed. We have here, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable indications of the mental state of crowds, and especially of the facility with which they are influenced. The unreal has almost as much influence on them as the real. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two. (Le Bon, 1952: 68--9)”