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The long history of society tells us people have always ...
The long history of society tells us people have always taken on new characteristics when they form an organised crowd to act out their views and concerns. Across the centuries, Western history has been a continual striving for civil liberties, causing mass movements and rebellions. But since social attitudes change with time, modern-day crowd behaviour can best be understood by knowing how present-day attitudes have come about.
To appreciate how crowds are influenced, it is necessary to look behind the events themselves to determine the underlying conditioning that shapes people's beliefs. Since most studies are limited to their own particular field, all these diverse viewpoints must be distilled to a simple, comprehensive picture to advance our understanding of the way crowds behave.
Based on a century of field work, Crowds and Leadership brings together the opinions and guidance of investigators from many fields, and distills their findings into a simple, comprehensible picture.
When people join a crowd to draw public attention to some perceived injustice, they can often be led into committing acts they would never contemplate on their own. It follows there will always be those who would influence or exploit crowds for their own purposes.
The long history of society tells us people have always taken on new characteristics when they form an organised crowd to act out their views and concerns. Across the centuries Western history has been a continual striving for civil liberties, causing mass movements and rebellions. But since social attitudes change with time, modern-day crowd behaviour can best be understood by knowing how present-day attitudes have come about. Thus, old mistakes are not repeated.
To appreciate how crowds are influenced it is necessary to look behind the events themselves to determine the underlying conditioning that shapes people's beliefs. Nowadays, it is realised our understanding of crowd behaviour overlaps many other disciplines, including the social sciences, psychology, philosophy, law, policing and national security. Since most studies are limited to their own particular field, all these diverse viewpoints must be distilled to a simple, comprehensive picture to advance our understanding of the way crowds behave.
The study of crowds first emerged as a subject for serious consideration towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was a time when the old ways of life were crumbling under assaults on religious and traditional institutions. People who once lived with all the certainties of dwelling at the center of creation now realised they inhabited only a tiny planet in an infinite universe. Biology, too, reduced them to being just another species of animal. Long-standing dependence on tradition and the reassurance of divine guidance began to wane, and new attitudes undermined established moral principles and the family values of centuries.
While science shattered the hopes and dreams of traditional religion and moral beliefs, advances in technology and industry caused more and more people to drift to the cities where they became drawn into class conflict and violence. In its turn, the legacy of pollution, global warming and other by-products of science and technology has brought science itself into question, leaving modern society with few unifying beliefs, or the stability of old traditions to fill the spiritual vacuum.
In the late nineteenth century it was still believed rampaging crowds were made up of criminals and other miscreants. In those days Sigele, a young Italian solicitor, studied rampaging crowds from a legal point of view. He thought mob violence was due to the same factors that caused a decent law abiding person to become a criminal through repeated bad examples, and surmised this gradual change took place rapidly in a crowd. He believed demonstrators were not hardened criminals, but simply ordinary people who underwent mental changes giving excitement that inhibited their judgement for a short time. He went on to use this defence successfully in the courts, and claimed light sentences for his clients.
The French writer Gustave Le Bon was also one of the earliest to comment on crowd behaviour. In 1896, he described them as excitable, credulous, impulsive, violent, or even heroic: a state that leaves them vulnerable to suggestions from anybody capable of assuming leadership. This view has since been challenged, because until the days of world-wide media coverage, an observer had to be close to a demonstration to gain a first hand view of the action. The simple logistics of this precluded any widespread study of crowd behaviour, and many older theories had to be based on a handful of observations.
Nowadays, when global media networks bring instantaneous coverage of events into our homes, modern-day crowd behaviour can be witnessed, and even studied from the comfort of the television lounge. However, there is a problem in interpreting television pictures showing only the disorder. When this is reported from outside the crowd, accompanying comments on crowd behaviour rely on the viewpoint of the presenter, and may be biased. It depends upon which side is being supported, since the interpretation of events is governed by a small number of media corporations along national lines. Conclusions must therefore be guarded.
It was during this early period Gustave Le Bon gave his account of crowds. He was the first to separate crowds into several broad groups, each with its own particular characteristics. Most crowds, he said, are quite unorganised. They are those found on the streets, beaches, travelling, in fact, anywhere where individuals go about their daily activities without being organised towards a common objective. Some sociologists claim these are not true crowds but simply the public. Still, most people are aware of the morning and evening rush hour, the traffic jam with its road rage, and the behaviour of enthusiastic supporters at sporting fixtures. And when similar sentiments escalate they can involve entire nations. Millions may be sacrificed in war. It is not necessary to discuss the public any further, but begin by examining crowds that gather under some form of leadership to express a particular point of view.
The first comprises crowds categorised by Le Bon as homogeneous. Each individual is a member of the same social group, for instance, professional and business associates, or those of a similar race or creed that meet from time to time. In more recent times they have been named Artificial Crowds, since they are composed of individuals who are bound together by certain common principles in which a social hierarchy sets an example followed by those of a lower order. The chairman of a meeting or the leader of a professional group inspires members to give of their best, and the process tends to raise the general standard of the company. These groups are efficient within their own particular field, but if their members become part of a mixed crowd their behaviour may change dramatically.
Le Bon named this second group heterogeneous, or mixed crowds. These are composed of people from diverse backgrounds, all acting in unison, but requiring some external focus to keep them together. They are the crowds that make up most protests where individuals of different age, sex, or social condition gather under some form of leadership. These crowds do not suddenly materialise out of nowhere to demonstrate their opposition to some injustice, but act out attitudes and beliefs often shaped by a long process of conditioning.
Tarde, in 1901, was one of the earliest to consider the relevance of the social background of protesters by drawing attention to links between public opinion and the ensuing crowd reactions. He was also the first to recognise the role of the media in public disorder. However, Le Bon, being medically qualified, viewed crowd behaviour through their mental processes, with little reference to any underlying social input. He believed, when mixed crowds begin to protest, they take on new features with characteristics quite different from those of the individuals composing them. Under appropriate leadership he saw personalities become temporarily suppressed, and individual differences of rank or status shed, with everybody taking on a common objective. He claimed, in this way, an organised crowd develops a collective mind, and acts as a single entity. The crowd has now combined to form a united force with a common purpose. The limitations of this concept will be discussed later.
Le Bon believed people in mixed crowds are no longer themselves, but suffer a loss of individuality and develop a crowd mind. This new focus of emotions gives rise to a crowd ready to be led or exploited. For this to happen people need not be gathered in one location. In more recent times both the mass media and the internet have influenced widely scattered people towards a common goal, an example being attacks on the Olympic torch as it progressed through a series of countries on its way to Beijing.
Because of the emotional vulnerability and fickle nature of crowds, Le Bon inferred their actions were suggestive of a woman's nature. In keeping with a general masculine concept of the place of women in society in those days, he believed crowds had little will of their own and remained in need of a mentor to guide them. In former times, many others also interpreted crowd behaviour as a feminine quality. Shakespeare, for instance, described crowds as weak, servile, vacillating and stupid.
Despite numerous challenges, Le Bon's treatise is the only book of the time that has remained a guiding force for numerous leaders and dictators. His writings were later adopted by Hitler, who used Le Bon's writings as a basis for conquest. He claimed in 'Mein Kampf' that an orator must understand the feminine nature of crowds in order to be effective. Hitler asked what a woman expected of a man, and answered it was decision, power and action: all attributes of a leader. He reasoned women were the most important element in an audience, and steered his oratory to capturing their allegiance. Once women became sympathetic to his cause he believed the whole family, including the men, would follow. However, in the subsequent half-century, feminist movements in the Western World have raised the status of women, who now take a more active role in society, and are no longer a mere audience to be guided by a patriarchal hierarchy.
Le Bon claimed an obvious feature of crowd behaviour is that however diversely composed, the individuals combine and act in a unified way to attain a common goal. In extreme cases, he saw suppressed emotions surface, and often inane behaviour acted out. He said conduct could change dramatically, and ideas and emotions that would not affect isolated individuals, spread rapidly within a crowd. It is this change that gave rise to a common belief that despite the intellectual level of the participants, demonstrating crowds can be impulsive and violent with a tendency to behave in an irresponsible way. This behaviour was recently enacted by Otago University students who, despite above average intelligence, escalated their traditional capping procession into a riot, pelting the police with missiles, burning a car, and generally behaving in an obnoxious manner.
People have always been guided by their traditions and customs, and these have become embodied into the nature of the institutions each society has created. In Western democracies people have the power to change their way of government, and it is this concept that gives the right of lawful protest. At present we are living in times of rapid and profound changes that are unsettling society at a rate never before experienced in human history. In this unstable setting of global warming and economic dysfunction, the need to adapt to changing circumstances is prone to cause widespread disquiet, fuelling the civil protests and riots so often depicted in the media. We are reminded J.K. Galbraith warned we should never underestimate the power of very stupid people in large numbers.
The enigma still to be solved is why a lone individual may be a faultless citizen, but becomes irrational in a crowd. It was once believed that subconscious factors played a large part in this transformation. Despite intelligence, education, or social status, the veneer of civilisation appeared to be stripped away to expose underlying basic instincts and emotions. Le Bon, claimed it is precisely these primal qualities that become manifest in rampaging crowds. But since they are the only features in common, he concluded crowds can seldom attain a high level of intelligent action. Crowd intelligence, he claimed, was not an average of the crowd, but showed a definite reduction to a lower level.
In the past, authorities always viewed crowds from the outside, and downgraded the participants who they believed were acting in mindless mobs under the control of their leaders. For this reason, collective behaviour in the past was considered to involve the lower strata of society, and their behaviour was recorded in these terms by an upper stratum of police and the Establishment. They saw peasants as irrational and difficult to control, but observers closer to the action did not agree, a view that has slowly spread into current thinking. Recent observations confirm rampaging mobs are neither made up of criminals nor drawn from the slums. Rather, they are tradesmen, clerks, shopkeepers, professionals and others, who are usually demonstrating about some single perceived injustice.
Contrary to the conclusions of earlier reports, more recent observations of protesting crowds show the majority of participants are orderly rather than antisocial. Crowds rarely rebel because they are hungry, but because of injustice. Nor do they commonly embark on irresponsible plunder or pillage for no particular reason. Their actions are usually peaceful, and their purpose generally quite selective. It is most often limited to a particular target, commonly a government authority, and rarely involves blatant criminal activity. Bloody murders have certainly taken place, but on these occasions rioters have usually directed their attack to those they believed had exploited them, or have confiscated their possessions as a symbolic gesture. Rather than the bulk of the crowd becoming irrational, it is usually easy to make out an amorphous majority controlled by a few activists. More people have been killed by reprisals than by rioters.
Even in simple, non-violent demonstrations a few active members may attain a state of high excitement, which must release a flow of endorphins that induce morphine-like effects. The protesters remain under the control of a leader who feeds them simple suggestions to which they chant replies. Despite the serious intent of a demonstration, participants often appear euphoric, smiling, and at times even dancing and singing.
It is generally believed from the testimony of numerous demonstrators, the very strength of numbers instils a sense of power that overrides feelings of inferiority, allowing a person to give way to behaviour otherwise controlled. Being one in a large assemblage of protesters also gives a sense of anonymity that may lead to irresponsible acts.
Some observers explain these reactions as a release of emotions during a state of high excitement. Others point out that professional hypnotists show in a very dramatic way how easily some people can be deprived of their will, and obey suggestions put to them. Likewise, crowd behaviour suggests some of the participants lose their normal self awareness, and enter a state resembling an hypnotised person, obeying the will of a leader. In some cases individuals no longer appear responsible for their actions, and may behave with an impetuosity that gains power as it spreads by interaction within the group. Still, an organised demonstration is not necessary to produce this effect. It is sometimes seen where large crowds have gathered: at sporting fixtures, pop concerts, or even at ticker-tape parades.
Since Le Bon believed organised crowds are prone to revert to basic primal instincts, he deduced decisions made by a mixed group of highly intelligent people drawn from different walks of life could not be expected to give better decisions on general matters than any less learned group. His conclusions have relevance in areas such as decisions from high level but heterogeneous committees. The concept of crowds reaching a conclusion by consensus has wide application in the field of public interest, and ranges from such areas as jury selection through to the summit meetings of Apec. Czar Peter the Great of Russia is reported as saying his generals were outstanding in battle, but a bunch of fools in committee.
This change in behaviour allows suggestions and rumours to spread rapidly within the crowd, and gain in power and relevance by a type of interaction throughout the group. It may be likened to the dissemination of a potent epidemic where virulence increases with so-called animal passage. In extreme cases, individuals may reach such a high state of suggestion they are no longer in control of their actions. While many of their faculties become suppressed, others reach intense exaltation. Scenes of tumult and violence pictured in the media sometimes show these unruly reactions.
Excerpted from CROWDS and LEADERSHIP by DOUGLAS COOP Copyright © 2010 by Douglas Coop. Excerpted by permission.
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