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Crowd psychology

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Crowd psychology is a branch of social psychology. Ordinary people typically can gain direct power by acting collectively. Historically, because large groups of people have been able to effect dramatic and sudden social change, in a manner that bypasses established due process, they have also provoked controversy. Social scientists have developed several different theories for explaining crowd psychology, and the ways in which the psychology of the crowd differs significantly from the psychology of those individuals within it. Carl Jung coined the notion of the Collective unconscious. Other major thinkers of crowd psychology include Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti.

Contagion theory

An early explanation of collective behavior was formulated by French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who relied on two main concepts: "imitation" and "innovation". Tarde initiated the "group mind" concept, taken up by social psychologist Gustave Le Bon. According to Le Bon’s contagion theory, crowds exert a hypnotic influence over their members through collective suggestibility. Shielded by the anonymity of a crowd, people abandon personal responsibility and surrender to the contagious emotions of the crowd. A crowd thus assumes a life of its own, stirring up emotions and driving people toward irrational, perhaps violent, action. However, according to Tarde's sociology, leaders exerted a fundamental influence in the organization of spontaneous crowds into "corporations" (the Church, the State, the Army, the University, the Party, etc). Thus, Tarde or also William McDougall would distinguish spontaneous crowds and organized and institutionalized crowds. However, according to this theory, whether spontaneous or organized, crowds are related through a special bond (hypnotism or imitation) with charismatic figures. Tarde would also think about public opinion, considering modern crowds to be organized through mass media. He thus prefigured Marshall McLuhan's famous thesis on the "the medium is the message".

Le Bon’s idea that crowds foster anonymity and sometimes generate emotion has become somewhat of a cliché. Yet, it has been contested by some critics, such as Clark McPhail who points out that some studies allege that "the madding crowd" does not take on a life of its own, apart from the thoughts and intentions of members. Norris Johnson, after investigating a panic at a 1979 Who concert concluded that the crowd was composed of many small groups of people mostly trying to help each other.

However, it must be noted that if Le Bon often referred to the cliché of the irrational crowd, which was current in the 19th century and before (in particular in the fields of criminology, which tended to describe crowds as irrational and criminal groups), he considered himself the founder of "crowd psychology". Thus, he didn't consider crowds as totally irrational, but simply thought that ordinary individualist psychology wasn't relevant to this phenomenon. Le Bon was a pioneer in propaganda, which he considered a suitable and rational technique for managing groups, using for example communal reinforcement of beliefs, etc. Le Bon's 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind influenced many 20th century figures, including Adolf Hitler, whose Mein Kampf insisted on Le Bon's work [1].

Le Bon made abundant use of the concept of "collective soul". Sigmund Freud would criticize this notion of collective unconscious, asserting that crowds do not have a soul of their own, nor do specific ethnic groups have a Volkgeist. Rather, individuals identify themselves to their leaders through their own "ideal ego" (that is, their subjective representation of their leader). The Freudian concept of an "ideal ego" later became the super-ego. Ultimately, leaders themselves identify themselves to an idea.

Theodor Adorno criticized the belief in a spontaneity of the masses: according to him, the masses were an artificial product of "administrated" modern life. The Ego of the bourgeois subject dissolved itself, giving way to the Id and the "de-psychologized" subject. Furthermore, the bond linking the masses to the leader through the spectacle, as fascism displayed in its public representations, is feigned: "When the leaders become conscious of mass psychology and take it into their own hands, it ceases to exist in a certain sense... Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader's performance... It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own 'group psychology' which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable. If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic." [2]

Convergence theory

Convergence theory holds that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular individuals. Thus, crowds amount to a convergence of like-minded individuals. In other words, while contagion theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, convergence theory says the opposite: that people who wish to act in a certain way come together to form crowds.

An example of convergence theory is the practice sometimes observed when an immigrant population becomes common in a previously homogeneous area, and members of the existing community (apparently spontaneously) band together to threaten those trying to move into their neighborhoods. In such cases, convergence theorists contend, the crowd itself does not generate racial hatred or violence; rather, the hostility has been simmering for some time among many local people. A crowd then arises from convergence of people who oppose the presence of these neighbors. Convergence theory claims that crowd behavior as such is not irrational; rather, people in crowds express existing beliefs and values so that the mob reaction is the rational product of widespread popular feeling..

Emergent-norm theory

Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian developed the emergent-norm theory of crowd dynamics. These researchers concede that social behavior is never entirely predictable, but neither are crowds as irrational. If similar interests may draw people together, distinctive patterns of behavior may emerge in the crowd itself. Crowds begin as collectivities, acting, and protest crowds – norms may be vague and changing as when, say, one person at a rock concert holds up a lit cigarette lighter to signal praise for the performers, and other follow suit. In short, people in crowds make their own rules as they go along.

Decision-making, then, plays a major role in crowd behavior, although casual observers of a crowd may not realize it. Crowd behavior reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds. Emergent-norm theory points out that people in a crowd take on different roles. Some step forward as leaders; others become lieutenants, rank-and-file followers, inactive bystanders or even opponents. Each Member in the crowd plays a significant role.


  1. See Serge Moscovici, L’Age des foules: un traité historique de psychologie des masses, Fayard, 1981
  2. Theodor Adorno, "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda" in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London, Routledge, 1991, p.132


Social influence and social change, Academic Press, 1976.
    • (French)
Psychologie des minorités actives, P.U.F., 1979
    • (French)
L’Age des foules: un traité historique de psychologie des masses, Fayard, 1981 (about Gustave Le Bon's invention of crowd psychology and Gabriel Tarde)
    • (English)
Social Representations: Explorations in Social Psychology, Polity Press, 2000

See also

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