Mass psychology
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.


“We can say that there are two, and only two, modes of thought aimed at expressing reality, and these are the conceptual idea and the ideational image. The former depends on the laws of reason and proof, the latter appeals to memory and suggestion. One is proper to the individual, the other to the mass. Trying to convince and sway the mass by means more suited to individuals would be a serious mistake, rather as if a man were trying to apply to the state budget the rules he f6llowed for his own family finances. Le Bon states critically that 'logical minds, accustomed to be convinced by a chain of somewhat close reasoning, cannot avoid having recourse to this mode of persuasion when addressing crowds, and the inability of their arguments always surprises them' (Le Bon, 1952: 114).


They could avoid such surprises if they used striking images and used them often, like Maurice Barres attacking 'the Jewish upper middle class' for 'reducing thousands of workers to a state of starvation', or Maurice Thorez declaiming that 'the fourteenth of July is the occasion when the nation is reconciled and united against the two hundred families' (Birnbaum, 1979: 23 and 31 respectively). The two hundred families and Jewish bankers are a bit more colourful than capitalists and bourgeois.


It would be very wrong to assume that Le Bon suggested that crowds: should be manipulated coldly and calculatingly. That would go against both his intention and the data of his science, since no-one can persuade: the crowd to accept an idea by which he himself is not fascinated or indeed hypnotised. In the light of what he saw as his own rigorous: observation, he argued that there was no other way of addressing a crowd. Embarking on a collective action in the same way as one would embark on an individual one would be pointless and even dangerous, and would mean ignoring the shape of his thought and the nature of his psychology and treating the masses just as if they were not the masses. All that would happen is that they would be made apathetic rather than encouraged to action. There was no way of infringing the laws of mass psychology, which were as strict as those of economics or physics and meant that the art of governing the masses was that of directing their imagination.


The power of those who ruled the world was based on that imagination. By acting on it they had brought about great religions and major historical events - Christianity, Buddhism, the French Revolution, the Reformation and, in our own times, Socialism. No-one, not even the 'most absolute despots', had been able to rule in opposition to it, even those who had always tried to appeal to it in their speeches, their dazzling battles or their fabulous legends. One thinks not only of Napoleon, but also of Churchill or Mao. The last word on this chapter is Le Bon's 'To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them' (Le Bon, 1952: 71).


Hitler followed Le Bon's thought and paraphrased it as follows: 'The art of propaganda lies in the fact that it applies itself to those areas in which the imagination is exerted, those of the masses dominated by instincts, and finds an appropriate psychological way to reach their emotions'. He also urged 'the use of all forms of images', since in that way 'human beings are still less obliged to use their reason. The most they need do is look at and read the shortest texts.' We learn from his biographers that his seizure of power and hold over the German people were the result of applying that-principle.


Thus for Le Bon the age of the crowd was the age of the imagination, and he who rules there rules by imagination. Writing at a time when the cinema and television were still unknown, he explained how the Skilful use of language could bring about that reign, since repeated words and phrases produce and fertilise in us a whole world of images that we see in our mind's eye. But however wonderful it might be, their power was nevertheless limited. After all, words and phrases are only substitutes for images. The latter, if they were directly presented, would have a greater power: 'Words evoke mental images, but images in the form of pictures are even more powerful' (Le Bon, 1911: 146).


He was obviously thinking of the images of his time, such as posters, photographs and theatrical spectacles. It would be a considerable and worthwhile undertaking to investigate how such illustrated illusions were produced and distributed and how they impressed and captured the crowds. Le Bon's intuition has been proved right time and time again. Since his day we have vastly increased the number of material devices for which he had very presciently provided a theoretical justification. No doubt, since it has often been said to be the case, the advent of the mass media had economic and technical causes. But their prime and major purpose has been to influence and sway the masses and hence to produce them on a large scale. The way they have developed can be seen to fall into two stages. First the evocative power of words was greatly increased by the radio, then the images that they call up were brought into being by the cinema and television.


There has been a constant move from one to the other. Fifty years of cinema, television, comic strips, political posters and advertising placards have brought to full growth, and hence confirmed, all that was embryonic in the analyses that crowd psychology proposed. Over a single generation we have moved from a culture of the word to one of images, which are more powerful. This means that in a short space of time radio and television have provided automatic thinking with a technical basis and a strength beyond anything that could have been foreseen, just as printing provided the basis for critical thought. The means of communication have turned it into a factor of history, a factor that will remain with us as long as we have a mass society.”