“Let’s just go with the crowd”. Such utterances are usually quite harmless and the by-product of deliberate lazy thinking. But many do not realize the unconscious affects crowds have on us day to day. We share memes like “You are the sum of the 5 people you hang around with” yet never truly comprehend how crowd psychology influence our behaviour. Today people are quick to assume a group identity losing their own individuality and conscious decision making. In business, corporations have also people very adept at socially engineering people behaviour to align with boosting their profit margins. But before we even get to that, it’s important to back to first principles. Let’s examine what exactly even is a crowd?
The Origins of Crowds
“A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it. As opposed to a curious person who explores first then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications. A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it.” ―
A crowd can be defined as a group of people banded together with a common purpose or emotion. We all belong to different crowds throughout our life. Marketing guru, Seth Godin, might describe them as a tribe. As people we are naturally social animals and being part of a crowd gives many people a sense of belonging and meaningfulness enlivened by sharing a common goal. We can form cliques based on common interests, shared experiences or culture to name a few. It helps people make friends as they feel familiar with the other person and share commonalities.
But crowds can be good and crowds can be bad. Crowds can overthrow dynasties, drive change and bring people together. In the olden days, this helped us to survive from predators fastening evolution. Humans can work together. Animals cannot. Heroism is linked to crowds but also terrorism. Crowds have a noxious ability to suck to the surface the worst in people. Just think of the Barbarian hordes who would commit mass rape and murder against another group identity many centuries ago. Crowds stimulate unconscious actions in people vs the conscious actions of individuals.
Individuals Losing Their Individuality
“We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.” ― Gustave Le Bon, Crowd Psychology
Other people can have a lot of influence on us. Research shows we do not have as much control over our thoughts and behavior as we like to believe. We take cues from our environment, especially other people, on how to behave. One random sample study showed people are less unlikely to help somebody injured if other people are present. The presence of other people meant people outsourced responsibility while also being influenced by the “if nobody else is doing it then neither will I” phenomenon.
The greatest sins of today’s tech world are that people might be becoming more self-centered but are losing their sense of individuality. Much of my generation can no longer think for themselves. They have become too accustomed to consuming information from the media (and their smartphone). With social media as well as apps and content streaming sites, the whole aim is to keep people on site as long as possible. This feeds them more ads. To keep people online more, they provide them with more of what the data tells them they like. So somebody who identifies strongly with a certain group like a religion, nationality or political leaning will be fed more of this same worldview. AI and machine learning clusters people into groups based on identifiers. This further enhances the loss of individual self as people are drip-fed information of their worldview.
Clinging To Crowds
Nationality and religion are two powerful crowds that many cling to. More wars have been started due to religious conflicts than any other kind. You’d wonder what God makes of all the killing done in his/her name. When people lack a purpose or deeper meaning in life they enmesh their personality with groups where they feel a close affinity. Blind following of religion gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Patriotism evokes quite a strong reaction also. Some of the biggest dictators like Hitler and Mussolini knew the power of rising peoples patriotic tendencies. Then marching them behind the flag. Anyone who has worked abroad will notice how similar nationalities flock together.
Football hooligans are another interesting and dangerous crowd. Obsessive supporters lacking a purpose in life can attach themselves excessively to a team. When the team wins, they win. This combination of great love for a team binds people together. So much so they are ready to spill blood for them. Similar with superfans. Like Conor Mc Gregor fans. “When one goes to war we all go to war” his fans often exclaim. They live their lives vicariously through him. When he wins, they win. Except this is a fantasy. The reality is they go back to the job they most likely hate, a relationship they’re not happy in and live for the next time they get to escape into his life.
To Be Continued
I’ve been intending on writing a blog on Crowd Psychology for some time now. Ever since I studied Edward Bernays and the origins of the Public Relations industry (and wrote a blog on it), I’ve been interested in how people look externally to find meaning and self-esteem. Reading Gustave Le Bon’s book “Crowd Psychology” also served to whet my appetite. This blog is part of a two-part series. Next week I will continue with how Crowds influence behaviour and are manipulated by big business.