Le Bon was of the opinion that when people joined large, relatively unstructured social groups, they sometimes engaged in spontaneous and atypical collective behaviour. Le Bon suggests that crowds are ruled by a collective mind, and that contagion causes crowd members to experience similar thoughts and emotions. Freud, on the other hand, argues that individuals, by joining crowds, can satisfy some basic needs for membership, hostility, and so on.
Both of these theories are still popular today but lacking empirical evidence we strive to find more tangible theories that can be tested.
Several theories have been developed since these accounts such as de-individuation, emergent norm theory and social identity theory and this essay will look at these theories and try to assess whether or not they are better than Le Bon and Freud’s theories which lack any scientific basis. Le Bon, the author of The Crowd was writing during a time of ‘incipient social progress’ when the masses were wreaking havoc across France.
Being a member of the bourgeoisie this situation worried Le Bon and he wanted to cure the disorders brought about by the masses. He found the answer in psychology and the discovery of ‘a crowd soul’. Le Bon, in his work, rejected all three of the popular views of the time that the crowd was mad, criminal or antisocial and mainly inhabited by the people at the lower end of the social spectrum for the idea that a man, irrelevant of his social standing, once in a group would lose his personal characteristics and the personalities in the group would fuse together.
The characteristics of the crowd are ‘savagery, primitive and uncivilised because the individual is no longer acting consciously but unconsciously as the people are a collective mass. He described the collective state as being similar to that of a hypnotic state, an idea later harnessed by Freud. To merge into the collective state Le Bon cites the physical presence of the crowd as crucial and has developed from this his ‘Law of the mental unity of crowds’. The physical presence of others delivers anonymity giving the individual ‘invincible power’ and takes away the persons sense of responsibility.
His second idea is that, like a virus or bacteria, ideas, feelings and emotions spread rapidly throughout a crowd and individuals are quickly infected with the ‘disease’, this is the theory of contagion. Thirdly, there’s the concept of suggestibility and happens when the crowd is in the ‘collective’ state. This is open to exploitation when the person has lost his conscious personality and is open to all the suggestion that the crowd suggests. These three phenomenon release our animal nature and free us from social and moral constraints, what Le Bon calls ‘latent’ processes.
This perceived ‘loss of self’ has developed into what later thinkers have called de-individuation. Le Bon sees the collective behaviour as primitive and ‘devoid of reason or culture’ and links it to acting at the level of ‘racial unconscious’. Other psychologists have on the other hand proposed the idea that the collective mind is not necessarily as negative as Le Bon portrays believing the crowd to be capable of great acts of altruism and unselfishness. Many of the earlier social psychologists have coined similar ideas to Le Bon.
Tarde for example sees physical closeness as crucial as social life of individual is based on imitation, similar to Le Bon’s anonymity idea. The close proximity of the crowd is therefore the most extreme example of this imitation behaviour. Mc Dougal takes the view that similarity between group members, predominantly constitutional and racial will determine how fast ideas spread through crowds, a theory of contagion. Trotter believed that humans behaved similarly to animals in that they were very open to the opinion of the leader.
Freud, whose theory on crowds initiated from Le Bon’s places great emphasis on the role of the leader. Also writing during a time of political and social turbulence, Freud was hoping to understand the causes of the very real problems of the day namely anti-Semitic feeling and a tendency to follow demagogues who, to Freud, were obviously untrustworthy. Freud felt that suggestibility was still crucial and that it is an ‘irreducible, primitive phenomenon’. Freud, similarly to Le Bon, believed that psychic factors are crucial.
The unconscious becomes unlocked and members of the crowd become bound by their love for the leader. The leader is usually a charismatic individual who may be perceived as a father figure. The Freudian model of the psyche, the id, ego and superego (sub-conscious, conscious and super-conscious) are all at play in the crowd situation. The superego, which represents moral and civilised aspects of the psyche, is renounced to the leader. This leaves the Id to dominate the mind resulting in primitive and uncivilised behaviour. The leader will provide a group ideal and the crowd will inevitably follow.
Freud likens this leadership control to that of a hypnotist. The adoption of the new ideals causes the self to change dramatically and it shifts from individual self to a ‘group self’ where all members can identify with each other. It would seem, having looked at the theories of Le Bon and Freud that they are very comprehensive nevertheless there are many criticisms that have been made of both of their theories. The most important criticism of both Freud and Le Bon is that they lack empirical evidence to support their proposals.
Due to the nature of the theories we are unable to verify them, as access to the unconscious is impossible. Both men also describe the behaviour of the crowd as primitive but neither considers the often-unselfish nature of the crowd, a definite positive aspect. Le Bon has been criticised for cementing together ideas of other theories such as contagion and can be vague and of ‘mediocre’ quality. A further criticism would be his biased interpretation of crowds. Le Bon sees the crowd as a force for social evil and incorporates his fascist ideology into his work.
It is also evident that the social context in which he is writing also affects his objectivity and he talks of the revolution in a crude way. There are many aspects of Freud’s work that are also vague. For instance, Freud sees the leader as fundamental to the changing of the individuals psyche to that of the group self but this theory is problematic insofar as not all crowds have leaders. Another loophole is that many people demonstrate the characteristics that Freud describes for being susceptible to crowds but do not, in practice, succumb to the crowd.
From the basis of both Freud and Le Bon there have been many psychologists who have attempted to rectify the problems cited above and in doing so have developed theories of their own. The most obvious of these is the theory of de-individuation which has developed from Le Bon’ blueprint of anonymity. De-individuation means the loss of personal identity and many studies have been carried which support the theory. De-individuation differs from Le Bon’s theory in the way that the indiviaual isn’t seen as losing the mind to the collective but that the loss of individuality leads to a total loss of control.
This loss of control culminates in the release of the individual from internal moral restraints and generates behaviour that is impulsive, irrational, emotional, regressive and intense. Research by Festinger, Pepitone andNewcomb (1952) made small groups of subjects discusses their feelings towards their parents. They found that the less individual subjects viewed themselves and each other the more ‘rash and daring’ were their contributions to the conversation. Singer, Brush and Lublin (1965) conducted a study where subjects had to talk about erotic literature.
They found that those wearing lab coats and thus seen as non-identifiable used more obscene language than the more identifiable subjects. Both of these studies demonstrate that people, when de-individuated will behave differently and Singer attributed theses finding to reduced feelings of self-consciousness and distinctiveness. Le Bon (1985) went on to say that people would behave in more extreme ways in crowds because they lose their sense of identity. Zimbardo believes that the crowd provides a ‘cloak of anonymity’ and diffuses personal responsibility for the consequences of an individual’s actions.
He details two types of behaviour, individuated, when behaviour is rational, controlled and consistent with personal norms and de-individuated behaviour, which acts on primitive impulses, is anti social, unrestrained. He believes that this behaviour is caused by being a member of a crowd or when wearing a uniform as loss of individual identity and a reduced concern for social evaluation. Zimbardo (1969) has carried out several experiments on de-individuation and anonymity. One experiment showed that de-individuated people (in this case they were dressed in lab coats and hoods) had a stronger tendency towards aggressive behaviour (e. . total duration of shocking was twice as much for the de-individuated group compared to the identifiable condition). Another experiment that Diener (1976) made in the same area was on a group of Belgian soldiers. However, the result was the reverse- the soldiers had a shorter shocking time than the ‘normal’ people did. It has been said that this is due to the fact that the soldiers were already de-individuated before the test as they are already members of a group, the army. When they put on a lab coat and a hood (and away from their fellow soldiers) they suddenly became more self-aware than they were before.
Diener believed that dressing up in these ‘silly’ costumes might have made them more self-conscious rather then less. He sees the key to de-individuation as losing self-awareness. Further research observed more than a thousand children on Halloween. They found that those who’d given their names to the householder or who wore costumes that didn’t allow anonymity were less likely to steal sweets from the bowl when briefly left alone. Diener was concerned with how de-individuation came about.
Anonymity doesn’t directly lead to it because, as Hogg demonstrates, a bank robber is anonymous but yet very conspicuous. This conspicuousness is found more often in small groups or when there are many observers. Instead, Diener focused, as mentioned above, on self-awareness whereas previously focus of studies was on anonymity in the group and this was seen as the most important factor to de-individuation. Self-awareness means a person is the object of one’s own attention particularly ‘private’ self awareness which is reduced awareness of one’s private thoughts and feelings.
This attention on the self, to things such as one’s attitudes and norms, increases the capability for self-regulation. Nonetheless Classical and contemporary views agree on the main thrust of the de-individuation hypothesis being that he psychological state of de-individuation brings about anti-normative and dis-inhibited behaviour. As with most theories de-individuation is also open to criticism. Despite considerable research and development of ideas, it is too simplistic. Many of the studies, which it uses to prop itself-up are lab-based.
More naturalistic studies are needed to increase the ecological validity of the theory. The theory can also be criticised for ignoring coherence of crowd behaviour as crowds frequently behave in the same manner. At football matches, for example, component people are not the same yet the behaviour demonstrated is always very similar. Another theory that has developed, In contrast to Le Bon’s contagion theory, is the convergence theory. As demonstrated, Le Bon thought that crowds were run by a collective mind and the individual thoughts changed radically.
According to the convergence theory, the people who join a group often have similar needs and personal characteristics as the group. Instead of changing the self into the group collective the individual is, essentially, already what the group is. A further modern, contradictory theory to that of Le Bon’s s Tuner and Killian’s (1972) ’emergent norm’ theory. Contrary to Le Bon, who believes an individual loses himself in the crowd, becoming mindless, in emergent norm theory the crowd is another type of a group and the behaviour demonstrated by the crowd is a type of group behaviour, just more extreme.
The idea is that group processes creates order and purpose amongst the crowd and norms spread quickly and are adopted by all crowd members but, contrary to contagion theory, the differences are illustrated between individual and group behaviour by looking at the different norms. New norms emerge in collective situations through the observation of the distinctive action of group leaders. Behaviour of the crowd comes from the social norms of a crowd. People are motivated by a desire for ‘social reinforcement and approval’, and are scared of being rejected or as being perceived as an outsider. The norm must be specific to the situation to some degree-hence emergent norm. ” (Turner) A major criticism of this theory is presented by Deiner (1980) is that a crowd that acts ‘normally’ would have to be self aware but being in a group, as his personal research demonstrates, reduces self awareness, rendering the whole theory void. The theory, as Reicher points out, also fails, similar to de-individuation theory, there is no account as to why crowd action is unified and doesn’t dissolve into sub-groups.
Reicher developed his own theory, social identity theory; whereby individuals take on the social identity of the crowd and conform to the normative behaviour of that crowd via referent informational influence. This theory does not remove responsibility of an individual’s behaviour in a crowd situation, rather shows that the control of the crowd lies with the individual as they have identified with the crowd norms and taken them on as their own, and consequently their consent in their social identity as a crowd member.
There are three key ideas that are central to the theory, categorisation, identification and comparison. Categorisation is the tendency by humans to categorise things, including people, as a means to understanding the world. These categories can be things such as religion, race, occupation and by doing this we can identify with who we are like and find things out about ourselves. What behaviour is appropriate is then defined by reference to the groups we belong to. If someone belongs to a group that we don’t belong then we will never identify with them.
The second idea of ‘identification’ has two meanings. Firstly that we identify ourselves as being in an individual or as being a group member and which way we classify our self depends on the situation that we are in. When we consider our self to be a group member we call this social identity. When thinking of our self as a unique individual this is referred to as personal identity. Group membership is not something foreign, which is tacked onto the person; it is a real and vital part of the person.
The groups that you identify with are in-groups and those you don’t identify with are out groups. The other meaning implied by the concept of identity is the idea that we are the same or identical to the other people. This doesn’t mean literally but for identification purposes those who are members of the same groups as us are the same/similar E. g. during a war the enemy are all the same and treated the same way and deemed deserving of death. The third idea in social identity theory is the idea of comparison. This is when we evaluate ourselves in relation to others.
By looking to others groups we can higher our self-esteem, which in turn leads to a positive image of the self, which is essential to healthy functioning. By identifying ourselves as being in a group we then learn the norms of that group and can find out what the limits of the group are. In order to test his theory, Reicher conducted some experiments to test how attitudes change when social identity is prevalent. One of his investigations found that social science students were more antivivisection and science students more pro-vivisection when they were divided in their respective subject groups than when they were mixed together.
He found that personal identity is replaced in a group situation by social identity. Reicher also analysed data from the St. Paul’s riots which occurred in Bristol and found that people identified with one another and because of this they adhered to the norms of the group because they were adopted as their own. In conclusion, it seems that older theories such as Le Bon and Freud are relevant today as they provide a strong theoretical basis from which we can develop our own theories of the crowd.
However, the very theoretical nature of them is what makes the more recent theories much viable and realistic as both Freud and Le Bon use concepts that we will never be able to verify such as the unconscious mind. In contrast, more recent studies are supported with empirical evidence that can lead to only one conclusion, they are better theories. The nature of crowds however, means that future research will be difficult to undertake, as studies cannot be recreated in the lab due to the sheer volume of people needed.