Originally published in French under the title Psychologie des Foules (“Psychology of Crowds”), Gustav le Bon mapped out the effect of the masses (“the crowd”) upon societal behavior—a factor which, he said, influenced not only the norms of that society, but the direction of civilization itself.
Le Bon pointed out that any individual within a society eventually succumbs to the pressure of the crowd, and as a result, is influenced by the “magnetic influence given out by the crowd.”
The basis for this influence, he argued, is genetic, and never changes. “Race and the slavery of our daily necessities are the mysterious master-causes that rule our destiny.”
All environments, circumstances, and events are the product of the “social suggestions of the moment,” but this “influence is always momentary if it be contrary to the suggestions of the race; that is, to those which are inherited by a nation from the entire series of its ancestors . . .
“The biological sciences, which have been transformed since embryology, have shown the immense influence of the past on the evolution of living beings; and the historical sciences will not undergo a less change when this conception has become more widespread.”
Furthermore, he argued, a nation does not choose its institutions at will any more than it chooses the color of its hair or its eyes, and all institutions and governments are the product of race. People are not the “creators of an epoch,” but are created by it, and their innate character determines how they govern themselves. This means that an environment cannot change a person, and the individual—as part of a crowd, ultimately determines the environment.
In a crowd, the person loses his individuality, and becomes part of a mass, moving as one, and hence “crowds” can be swayed to commit acts of violence or hero worship.
He points out that the characteristics of crowds can be seen particularly well in parliamentary assemblies, where “intellectual simplicity, irritability, suggestibility, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and the preponderating influence of a few leaders” is dominant.
Finally, Le Bon argues, all civilizations have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, and never by crowds. On the contrary, “crowds,” left to themselves, will always cause the fall of civilization.
About the author: Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon (May 7, 1841–December 13, 1931) was one of France’s most famous polymaths, who wrote and studied extensively in the fields of anthropology, psychology, and science. His best-known work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, is reputed to have been influential in the thinking of historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Lenin—due to his interpretation of the effects of crowd psychology and propaganda.
Author: Gustave Le Bon