Sentiments and Morality

Crowds are impulsive. They behave without deliberation, which places them at the mercy of external causes that excite their emotion and elicit a reaction. Because they do not consider what they perceive, they are readily influenced and subject to suggestion, just as a person who is hypnotized accepts what he is told, even the irrational, without consideration of whether it makes any sense at all.

Le Bon likens the mentality of crowds to be like children or primitive people, who have little knowledge of the world and attempt to make sense of what they immediately perceived by the most facile explanation possible, even if it is entirely irrational. They are little more than animals, driven by instinct and impulse, without reasoning skills.

As such, a crowd cannot be justly said to have morality, because morality requires reasoning to determine what desires may be properly fulfilled and what actions may be properly undertaken to fulfill them. A mob wants what it wants, and does not heed reason or morality at all. A crowd might support a just cause - but concepts of justice or injustice are incidental.

Neither can it be said that a crowd can be directed toward a moral purpose. While an organized group may be governed, a mob never can. They cannot be directed, but a purpose may be suggested - and even then it may be disregarded or reinterpreted. Again, the consequences are never considered, and morality is incidental.

Impulsiveness, Mobility, and Irritability

The crowd reacts to the strongest external stimulus, and its reaction shows a lack of deliberation: the most instinctive and obvious action is taken to any external excitement.

Le Bon suggests that the crowd acts "far more under the influence of the spinal cord than the brain" and is in this way closely akin to primitive creatures. (EN: This is actually not far from what neuroscience has shown, i.e., that impulsive reactions cause activity in the limbic system, which includes inner brain structures, and do not engage the neocortex, which is the rational and distinctly human part of the brain.)

He then likens the behavior of people in crowds to those of individuals who are simply not thinking. A man, overcome by his emotions, is prone to act out of anger or fear, to do things that he will regret at a later time when he is able to consider what ought to have been done - but in the passion of the moment, he failed to exercise his reasoning capacity and acted on his emotions alone.

In the moment of action, the members of a crowd act without reason and without morality. Its actions may be interpreted as heroic or criminal, but this is invariably the judgment of an individual outside of the crowd and/or at a later time attempting to impose a rational basis on an action that, at the time, was entirely irrational.

Neither is a crowd consistent in its actions: it can be seen that a crowd will pass in a moment from bloodthirsty ferocity to selfless heroism. The crowd is raw emotion, seeking a direction, and subject to change direction because there is no reason to impose consistency.

Any suggestion of premeditation on the part of the crowd is out of the question. It is under the exciting causes of the moment, and are tossed like "leaves which a tempest whirls up and scatters." The members of a crowd are not self-directed and do not have a purpose beyond the moment. This inconsistency makes a crowd very difficult to govern: a leader may take command but for a short time, and his commands are as suggestions. It is very common that a speaker may find that the crowd who had been "with him" spontaneously turns "against him."

At other times a crowd may be obstinate - it is set on a course and will not be dissuaded. It cannot be reasoned with, and it is futile for any individual to attempt to control a crowd that is set in a given direction. A mob pent on destruction and pillage, whipped into a furious passion, cannot be dispersed or discouraged.

There is a brief consideration of ethnicity - and Le Bon observes, "the difference between a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon crowd is striking." He provides a few examples of this, but no explanation. (EN: Much of this has to do with the way in which culture "programs" individuals to react in certain ways. A person can defy the imperatives of culture, but it takes a process of reasoning to recognize the need to deviate from customs.)

Suggestibility and Gullibility

One of the defining factors of a crowd is suggestibility. A group of people does not become a crowd until they form some cohesion, however weak and vaguely defined, that leads them to take action as a mass rather than as individuals. Though a mass of people who have no purpose of their own may decide to linger in the same place at the same time, they do not behave as a crowd until someone suggests what they ought to do, and they begin to take action.

And in terms of suggestions, crowds are very gullible. The suggestion itself can have weak logic, or none at all, and is not given much consideration before the crowd prepares for action. A suggestion such as "let's set fire to the palace to protest an unjust law" is predicated on the notion that the building itself is responsible for the injustice, and the injustice will cease if it is destroyed. But the suggestion need not go that far: "let's set fire to the palace" is often quite enough to motivate a crowd to action, simply because it has nothing better to do and destruction seems like an acceptable method to vent its discontent.

Crowds do not debate whether the suggestion has merit - they decide to do it or not in a very facile way. Even in organized crowds, such as a committee, the discussion is often very superficial, and the idea is promulgated and defended without much debate. From the moment that they form part of a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of considering whether a suggestion is sound.

A crowd is emotional, and not logical. The arguments that pass from mouth to mouth are never elaborate or well constructed, but are mere suggestions of action. A crowd deals with immediate sense-perception: what it sees and hears at the moment is the sum total of all the evidence it will consider. It is extremely gullible when it comes to the logical connection between one thing and another, and supposes that whatever it perceives at a glance is truth.

Le Bon speaks of the distortions of truth that occur in crowds: the panicked citizens in a city under siege may storm a house because it is suggested that a candle in the second-story window is a signal to the enemy. Never mind that the occupant had no intention of doing so; never mind that it would be impossible for the invaders several miles distant could not possibly see the light; never mind that there was no candle in the window at all, but merely a reflection of torchlight from the street; and never mind that the majority of the crowd never even saw that reflection.

He also mentions the notion of mass hallucination, and cites an entry from naval logs of an incident in which the entire crew claimed to have seen a wreckage, which was described in specific detail by some who claimed to have seen, in board daylight, "masses of men" drifting on flotsam, waving their arms and hearing their shouts. When the frigate altered course to provide rescue, it was found that it was merely a raft of driftwood.

The same process of delusion and intentional deception can be observed among a large group of people over a slower period of time - superstitions arise from people believing in things that are untrue and make little sense. The few intelligent members of a culture may recognize these beliefs to be false, but the vast majority will accept the idea that a cat crossing one's path causes misfortune to occur. Some will attest to incidents that support this idea, even if their testimony is completely fabricated.

The number of participants in the crowd does not seem to be significant (EN: Though it would stand to reason that a small group can negotiate and be more consistent in its fictional accounts than a large one). Consider any instance in which a group of people tell wild tales of the events they claim to have witnessed in a "haunted" house, or seeing spirits in a forest. One person will tall of an incident he imagined or fabricated, and another will agree that he had seen it as well, and before long the entire group will testify to the most outlandish things and will swear oaths that they are true, even when they are entirely impossible. Further examples are given or urban legends and false testimony given in court under oath.

To return to the gullibility and suggestibility of crowds, it can be seen that their collective observations are "as erroneous as possible" - and the large number of people and the spontaneity of the crowd often makes it difficult to identify and examine those who claim to be witnesses. To suggest that something is a "real fact" because it has been verified by thousands of witnesses does not mean that it is a fact at all, and makes it more likely that it is not.

Off to another historical example: the disastrous charge at the battle of Sedan was never commanded by the general officer, and it was afterward quite impossible to determine who had ordered the men forward. It is believed that a general panic among the men, or perhaps even of their horses, caused them to charge forward without being commanded to do so, though the survivors attest that the charge had been ordered. It is likely the battlefield, being such a dire situation, is a place in which groups of soldiers form crowds that act as panicked crowds. Le Bon expresses doubt that historians ever truly know how any battle ever took place: theirs is a plausible fiction, constructed in arrears, that superimposes logic and reason on a chaotic situation.

"The works of must be considered as works of pure imagination. They are fanciful accounts of ill-observed facts, accompanied by explanations and the results of reflection. To write such books is the most absolute waste of time."

In a very real sense, works of history can be compared to epic poems and religious scriptures in their distortion of certain facts and complete fabrication of others. The difference between a legend and a historical account is merely a matter of degree. Journalism fares no better, as it is distinguished only by the amount of time that has passed. It is likewise a fiction that pretends to be fact, based on poor observation and gossip. And the information that passes among crowds is merely journalism of the moment, an embellished retelling of something that happened minutes ago, or perhaps something that didn't happen at all.

Exaggeration of Emotion

The emotions of crowds tend to be very simple and very exaggerated, which follows in the primitive logic. A simple-minded person feels emotions more intensely than an intelligent one, and a child's emotions are more intense than that of an adult. Intelligence and experience make a person able to mitigate emotional reactions - such that they are capable of being irritated without becoming furious, pleased without being delirious, recognizing that a mild stimulus merits a mild reaction.

Not only does a crowd lack the reasoning skills to mitigate response, but their collective nature causes emotions to become heightened. A person may become angry because others around him are angry, even if he has no reason to feel that way. It is speculated that a person expresses a feeling, rather than merely feeling it, in order that others may validate his reaction by mimicking it.

Third, even strong emotions tend to fade in an individual person: a man may feel a moment of emotion, and then it subsides unless he is further provoked. Let a second person encourage him to be emotional, and his emotion can be sustained for a longer period of time. Members of a crowd in this way serve not only to intensify, but to sustain one another's emotions. Likewise, a person's emotions intensify when someone else mimics their emotions. This can be seen when two people are together, and becomes even more intense when there are many people in a crowd, feeding off one another's emotions.

Actors and orators routinely excite the emotions of crowds. Rousing speeches make use of bold language and emotionally charged statements that act as seeds for the crowd to react. The experience of reading a speech is nothing like that of hearing it as part of an audience - in a moment of repose, speeches that had been highly effective often seem melodramatic, childish, and silly. And a compelling argument, read in a serene environment, would be boring an ineffective to a crowd.

Le Bon mentions that plays that are successful are often rejected by theater managers who fail to consider that reading the script does not convey a sense of the impact of its performance upon a live audience.

Intolerance, Dictatorialness and Conservatism

Crowds are not entirely impervious to logic and reasoning, but they have little use for them except on a superficial and basic level. The mentality of a crowd is highly black-or-white and unable to discern subtle facts, such that an idea, opinion, or belief is to be wholly accepted or wholly rejected without much consideration.

In terms of ideas, crowds are normative: they seek to have unanimous agreement upon an idea and are intolerant of any dissent. To a crowd, a person is an ally or an enemy, and those who do not go along with the sentiment of a crowd, or even seem reluctant, are enemies. This is demonstrated in the intolerance of religion and politics, both in the moment and as institutions.

In a discussion among two people, both will accept contradiction and discussion. Gentlemen can agree to disagree but a crowd will never do so. An orator who contradicts the sentiment of a crowd will be shouted down with "howls of fury" and this is often followed by a more physical reaction: people who oppose the will of the crowd are often mobbed, beaten, and even killed by the mob simply for disagreeing.

The notion of civility in a crowd is seldom seen to exist. A debate may be held in a classroom, and parliaments may have discussions in which there is mutual respect in the course of discussing a point of contention. But even in those environments, tempers periodically flare and it requires a skilled moderator to diffuse emotional outbursts so that rational discussion may resume.

Crowds exhibit a docile respect for force, and are scarcely moved by acts of kindness. It is often seen that groups of people have little use for an easy-going master, but seem to prefer tyrants who vigorously oppress them. Such people become, and remain, leaders within a crowd - though crowds will react most violently to a despot who has lost the semblance of power and strength, when their fear of his strength turns to disgust at his weakness.

In turning against a strong leader who appears weak, crowds may have the appearance of being progressive and revolutionary - but when you consider how rarely this happens, it becomes clear that crowds are more conservative and are happy to be oppressed in a consistent manner. The instances in which a crowd changes its course are rare, and are merely dramatic moments of unusual behavior. Most of the time, the crowd is docile before its leaders.

He mentions that crowds have an "unconscious horror of all novelty," are reject any new idea. This is why scientific progress is often driven by individuals rather than groups, and must spread slowly by means of individual adoption rather than being promoted all at once. Groups of people routinely suppress change and cling tenaciously to the status quo: religions and parliaments attempt to prevent new ideas from being disseminated. There never has been a public outcry in favor of a new idea - it is in their nature to oppose them vehemently.

The Morality of Crowds

The definition of "morality" is difficult to pin down, precisely because everyone who has an opinion about what is moral attempts to redefine the term to make it serviceable to their agenda. It's generally agreed upon that being moral has to do with behaving in a way that is proper and beneficial - but proper and beneficial to whose interests?

The morality of crowds is rigged to serve the interests of the crowd: anything that supports the desires of the crowd is moral, and anything that impedes the desires of the crowd is immoral. To be part of the crowd is to cease to be an individual, and to self-sacrifice for the common interest, even when the common interest shifts on the spur of the moment.

The few psychologists who have studied crowds tend to consider them in the context of their criminal acts, and conclude that the moral standards of a crowd must be very low. However, to the crowd itself, cooperation is the standard of morality - to engage in murder and pillage when the crowd wills it to be so is a moral obligation to the members of the crowd. That these actions are detrimental to the interests of those outside the crowd is of no concern to the crowd itself.

The ability to engage in acts of wonton barbarism is, for some, an attraction to participating in a crowd. Quite often, an errant youth will justify his misbehavior as being the result of social pressure, just going along with the group rather than thinking for himself. And this is quite true, but it does not admit the fact that he wanted to engage in this behavior, and the crowd merely gave him the excuse. By claiming to have been part of a group, he seeks to escape judgment for his individual motives.

The crowd offers its members the benefit of anonymity. Particularly in a riot situation, many individuals choose to undertake actions believing that they will not be identified as an individual perpetrator, and that the mass of people conceals their identity. And very often, this is true: there are seldom any repercussions for individuals who behaved as part of a crowd.

Even those who are not inclined to seek a crowd as a means to justify or conceal their villainy will often avail themselves of the opportunity to be villainous. An otherwise morally sound individual will revert to primitive motivations when they are presented the opportunity to hide within a mass of people. And per the earlier comment, for a person to refuse to participate in mayhem might well put them at risk of being picked out as an enemy of the crowd.