The logic of crowds
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.

 

“Automatic thinking, whether it superimposes or projects ideational images, has no concern at all for their rigour or coherence. This is taken care of at a more primordial level by the beliefs and feelings which regulate its flow, as locks control that of a river. Its main concern is to stay as close as possible to life as it is concretely lived. When someone says something or provides an image, there is an immediate reaction. This is different from critical thought in three ways, being indifferent to its own contradictions, lively and repetitive.

 

The indifference to its own contradictions can be seen in the fact that a crowd makes no bones about accepting and putting together ideas that are mutually exclusive, such as narrowly patriotic concepts and socialist ones, or fraternal ideas and those involving hatred, and finds nothing disturbing in their illogicality or the clash of words. Indeed, it appears that this twisting of logic gives ideas an air of mystery and confers some sort of extra authority on them, as happens in the thoughts of Mao: ‘Within the people, democracy is correlative to centralism and freedom to discipline.’ The principles of elementary logic are abolished, and a thing can be correlative to its opposite. Such an indifference to the principle of contradiction explains why a crowd can change its mind overnight, believing one day the exact opposite of what it believed the day before without either noticing that it has done so or trying to correct it if it does notice. All the twisting and turning that takes place in a party or a movement and all its inconsistencies are above the heads of those caught up in it. Hence the ease and casualness with which they contradict themselves and suddenly change tack.

 

Le Bon states that:

 

These image-like ideas are not connected by any logical bond of analogy or succession, and may take each other's place like the slides of a magic-lantern which the operator withdraws from the groove in which they were placed one above the other. This explains how it is that the most contradictory ideas may be seen to be simultaneously current in crowds. According to the chances of the moment, a crowd will come under the influence of one of the various ideas stored up in its understanding, and is capable, in consequence, of committing the most dissimilar acts. Its complete lack of the critical spirit does not allow of its perceiving these contradictions.          (Le Bon, 1952: 62)

 

This does not explain why, from the social point of view, the members of a party and those who vote for it remain faithful to it in spite of its frequent changes in course, despite the fact that it says one thing on Mondays and another on Tuesdays and that those who were its friends yesterday are its enemies today. (The last fifty years of Socialist/Communist relations in France offer a good example of this.) But the fact that the masses are not aware of such contradictions and, intellectually speaking, do not notice such chopping and changing, is still an important historical factor.

 

Shakespeare has described this kind of inconsistency vividly. His vision is admittedly a dramatic one, but it certainly keeps to historical truth as reported by Plutarch. In Julius Caesar, the crowd acclaims Brutus, who explains, with a beautifully impeccable logic, why he has killed Caesar. One of the crowd even calls out ‘Let him be Caesar’, and yet shortly afterwards that same crowd, swayed by Mark Antony, is howling for his and his companions' deaths as traitors to Rome. A few images have been enough to arouse the desired emotions: Caesar’s mantle, rent by daggers and bloodstained, a veritable relic, the ‘dumb mouths’ of ‘sweet Caesar’s wounds’, the will leaving his goods to the people of Rome and even the biting irony with which the word ‘honourable’ is repeated, making a mockery of that desired epithet. On the one hand, the rule of reason and an ignorance of men as political animals. On the other, a welter of magical images and unleashed passions, the art of the orator playing the crowd like an instrument, coaxing from it at will sounds of r love, violence and hatred.

 

Vividness is an intuitive quality which makes it possible to select the decisive idea from amongst a mass of possible ones. When this is expressed extremely brilliantly and interestingly it calls up familiar memories. It makes an absent person or thing immediately present in the mind's eye. The words 'de Gaulle' at once conjure up the man's tall silhouette, his measured tread and his distant gaze. 'Nazi' means a whole crowd of goose-stepping automata, arms raised in the 'Hell Hitler' salute, howling slogans against a background of swastika banners, burning books or human beings.

 

It is its power to show, not to demonstrate, that makes the difference between a 'lively' idea and one which is less so. It does not inform; it creates enthusiasm. For the person receiving it, it ‘rings a bell’ because it is directly and intensely related to a person or a familiar object. These qualities fix it firmly in his mind and make sure that it is used often and devastatingly consistently. A certain kind of highly-informative knowledge has no impact, because it has no such emotional colouring. A speech full of figures and statistics is boring and not much of it is retained. A few colourful images, a striking analogy or two, a film or a comic strip will have a stronger effect on the imagination and produce emotional echoes.

 

To catch the imagination of crowds, who are ‘rather like sleepers’, half-measures are useless. What is needed is exaggerated arguments, spectacular examples and gripping short-cuts. Proverbially, what is excessive is false. For the crowd, the exact opposite is the case. Everything excessive is true, or at least can be.

 

The writers of antiquity taught that the mind and the memory could be impressed if emotional shocks were produced by means of unusual and striking images of a superb, hideous, comic or tragic nature. If a character was to make an impact, he had to have outstanding features and unusual characteristics, come close to an extreme prototype such as the hero or the traitor and experience unusual adventures and situations. When those conditions are met, ideas or individuals become active images for the crowd. And, as with drugs, the dose and frequency has constantly to be stepped up:

 

Whatever strikes the imagination of crowds presents itself under the shape of a startling and very clear image, freed from all accessory explanation, or merely having as accompaniment a few marvellous or mysterious facts; examples in point are a great victory, a great miracle, a great crime, or a great hope. Things must be laid before the crowd as a whole, and their genesis must never be indicated. A hundred petty crimes or petty accidents will not strike the imagination of crowds in the least, whereas a single great crime or a single great accident will profoundly impress them, even though the results be infinitely less disastrous than those of the hundred small accidents put together.       (Le Bon, 1952: 70)

 

This suggests that an ideational image contains an evocative charge in much the same way as a bomb contains an explosive one, tearing apart the filters of memory and bringing to the surface what is normally compressed and hidden in the concept.

 

The repetitive quality has the particular virtue of changing a conceptual idea into an ideational image and turning an abstract content into a concrete one. If doctrines and theories are to be popularly accepted, all that makes them specific and individual - their intricate arguments and precision of language - has to be abandoned. There is no other way. Crowds have neither the time nor the appropriate circumstances to discuss all the arguments, weigh up all the pros and cons and ponder all the facts. In addition, being always composite, as we have seen, they bring little intelligence to bear on such matters. Paradoxically - and this is well worth noting - the very places where they are brought together and demonstrate (such as meetings, assemblies, processions, markets, stadiums and streets) and where their leaders claim to be instructing and informing them, are the worst possible ones for such things. In such places there is a great deal of room for suggestion and very little for reason. Crowds listen to their spokesmen, see them and see themselves, work themselves up into enthusiasm or indignation and do everything in fact except reflect, since they have been brought down to an elementary level of thought and feeling. If ideas are to have a place at that level, they must of course be greatly simplified and the information or content be condensed and presented in the form of images. In Le Bon's words, 'Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise effective influence on condition that they assume a very absolute, uncompromising and simple shape. They present themselves then in the guise of images, and are only accessible to the masses under this form' (Le Bon, 1952: 61-2).

 

Ideas become universally accessible if they are constantly mass-produced and repeated, like machines or cars. And anyone can use them, whereas at first a driver or a skilled mechanic was needed. Once they are reduced to a simplistic formula, they capture the imagination. Natural selection becomes 'the survival of the fittest' and socialism 'the class struggle' and 'workers of the world unite'. Anyone knowing the formula seems to have a key, a rather straightforward way of understanding and solving the most complex problems. When they are reduced to one or two simple propositions and repeated often and at length, ideas act on the deep motives for our actions and automatically trigger them off. That is of course what terse slogans and catchwords are for, and the same is true of extraordinary or exemplary events, such as a revolution or the launching of the first moon rockets, which both strike the observer and produce a haunting and riveting image.

 

It is clear that there is more than a mere analogy between automatic thinking, with its indifference to its own contradictions, its liveliness and its repetitive nature, and symbolic thinking. The latter belongs to the dreams we have when asleep in bed, the former to the waking dreams the mass experiences when it is in a highly-suggestible state. In both cases, sleep dissolves consciousness and reason. Put bluntly, that means that crowds are automata. They are sensitive to whatever strikes a chord in their memory and react to the visible aspect of an abstract idea. They like a simple, frequently repeated answer that will cut through a complicated question like a sword through the Gordian knot. In short, they should ideally be given the answer before they have bothered to listen to the problem. To sum up, the logic of the crowd begins where the individual's finishes.”