Moving our focus to the social sciences, today we commemorate the birthday of social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (7 May 1841 – 13 Dec 1931). Le Bon is best known for his book, ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ (1895, English translation 1896), a study of the psychological characteristics of crowds.
Le Bon’s explanation of crowd behaviour was based on two main propositions: (1) that people in a group adopt a ‘group mind’, and (2) that this group mind is irrational and emotional. He also held the opinion that the emotions and will of an individual can spread through a group like a virus, taking over the collective emotional state of the group.
In groups, according to Le Bon, the normal control mechanisms that regulate an individual (social norms, values, ethics), are broken down, allowing the group to act in ways that would have been unacceptable to any of the individuals within the group.
Le Bon’s theories on crowd behaviour gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century, with people like Wilfred Trotter (‘Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War’) and Sigmund Freud (‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’) popularising and expanding various aspects of his work. As such, Gustave Le Bon is rightly considered one of the key figures in the theory of group psychology and group dynamics. Group dynamics has since found application in anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, education, business, social work and communication studies.
Political theorists found Le Bon’s theories particularly fascinating. It is said that Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ exploited the group propaganda techniques first proposed by Le Bon. Benito Mussolini was also a keen student of his work, as was Theodore Rooseveld. Edward Bernays, in his book ‘Propaganda’, considered the manipulation of the ‘group mind’ through media and advertising, to be a major feature of democracy.
I find the idea of the ‘group mind’, and how it can override the individuals within a group, fascinating, and frankly more than a little scary. While intergroup dynamics can have constructive application in things like team sports and certain work settings, I am just too much of an outsider to feel comfortable being absorbed into a group mind. At the same time I know I am being manipulated daily into group thinking through advertising etc – quite a scary thought.
Perhaps today is a good time to remind ourselves about the dynamics of the group, to re-evaluate the pros and cons of being a team player, and to critically assess how individual will can be superseded by the group mind. And perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look critically at our surroundings, to try and avoid becoming so caught up in the crowd that we lose our unique individuality.