Ideas, Reasoning Power, and Imagination

While it has been said that crowds are driven by impulse, emotion, and instinct, and that a crowd has very little use for logic and reason, that is not to say that logic and reason are altogether abandoned by a crowd. It is extremely superficial and impulsive, but not altogether absent.

The reasoning power of crowds is very primitive, but not altogether absent. At times, it makes a herd of people far more dangerous and brutal than a herd of animals; other times it makes them less destructive. A crowd may apply reason to causing complete mayhem and destruction, but in some instances it may limit the damage that it does.

Le Bon describes an attack in which people were massacred, but their bodies were not looted, with items of jewelry that were highly valuable left on the corpses, as a means to demonstrate the attack was for higher motives. Such results are extremely rare, but they demonstrate that reasoning is not entirely absent from even a murderous mob.

The Ideas of Crowds

Le Bon suggests that every civilization has been the result of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very rarely questioned, and the great historical perturbations are the result of changes in these fundamental ideas.

Crowds are also driven by a few basic ideas. Some crowds spontaneously form on the influences of the moment, whereas other crowds assemble in support of a basic concept. For the most part, a crowd represents a temporary reaction - either supporting a new idea against resistance or defending an old one against some incident in which a principle has been violated.

The past two centuries, but a blink in the history of civilization, have represented a time of change in which the religious and political ideologies that have remained largely unchanged for millennia are being called into question.

The fundamental ideas are by their nature very abstract and general, but assume an "absolute, uncompromising, and simple shape." The concept of liberty, that has created so much violence in many nations, is poorly defined and even more poorly understood.

In part, the newfound mobility of the people is to blame. He mentions that people from the far east, China and India in specific, are now beginning to travel to the west in greater numbers. Some are educated in European universities, and even those that aren't are exposed to a culture fairly different than their own - and a culture that is utterly unwelcomed in their native lands.

Ideas still travel slowly, mainly for the reason of resistance. Anything that seems different to a culture is immediately rejected. It must be simplified, adapted, and made palatable before it will gain acceptance and spread throughout a culture, and capable of taking hold in the minds of sufficient number of people to form a crowd that has any chance of challenging the status quo.

A good idea fares no better than a bad one in this regard. One can look to science, which can provide evidence of its conclusions that cannot be denied by any sane person. And yet, an idea as basic, observable, and obvious as the shape of the Earth required centuries to be acknowledged. Abstract sentiments, which cannot be readily demonstrated or proven, take even longer to disperse.

He turns again to the French Revolution, which took nearly a century between the time in which the concepts of liberty and equality were beginning to spread, and the time at which they had achieved acceptance on a scale that would tip society and topple the monarchy.

As far as ideas are concerned, the general public is always several generations behind the learned men and philosophers, and politicians are well aware that the sagacity of an idea is less important than its palatability to the crowds.

The Reasoning Power of Crowds

While Le Bon has insisted that crowds are not rational, it cannot be said in an absolute sense that they do not employee a kind of simplistic reason, but one of a very superficial and primitive nature.

He likens the reasoning of crowds to that of children and unsophisticated savages: the peasant who has never seen glass and believes that it is ice, the savage that believes that eating the heart of his enemy will give him courage, or the bigot who assumes that all people of a given race or class are perfectly alike.

An idea presented to a crowd must take the form of a simple statement, or a single syllogism based on superficial evidence - one thing must be like another because they both resemble a third. Anything more intricate or subtle will be lost or misunderstood.

One can observe the successes an failures of various orators in speaking to crowds to recognize the degree to which ideas must be simplified to gain acceptance.

The Imagination of Crowds

A crowd, like an unintelligent person, has little imagination but takes what it perceives through its senses (primarily vision and hearing) to be the limits of reality. But they are also susceptible to metaphors that rely on concrete images rather than abstract ideals.

To motivate an individual, it is necessary to convince him of an imaginary future state that he has within his power to effect - and in this sense crowds are prone to take actions that produce the greatest visual evidence.

For example, crowds that protest against poverty will often destroy the warehouses and factories - to punish the buildings for failure to provide them with the merchandise they desire. They do not and cannot understand that the unavailability of goods resulted from a breakdown in trade negotiations between two governments. One cannot burn down a negotiation.

This example also calls to mind that the imagination of crowds is also focused on the immediate and superficial. Consider that a dog that has been beaten with a stick will bite the stick, not its true assailant.

There is also the mention of spectacle, which influences a crowd in much the same way that a theatrical performance movers its audience. Because people are in the venue of a theater, they recognize that the display is a fiction, and there is no direction for their emotional reaction. But when spectacle is used outside that environment, people do not recognize its fictional nature, accept it as real, and react.

The crowd does not have a broad perception or a long memory, but reacts to what is before them at any given moment. A hundred crimes are committed daily in France and thousands die, and none of this is noticed, but one crime or death that is journalized in lurid detail becomes the talk of Paris. The loss of one transatlantic steamer described in the press became the subject of conversation for well over a week, never mind that official statistics indicate that 850 sailing vessels are lost in the same year.

With this in mind, it cannot be said that facts have much power to motivate crowds, but rather their imagination based on a superficial consideration of facts. It is spectacle not substance, their imagination rather than facts, that rouses the emotion of a crowd.