Gustave le Bon and the Behaviour of the Crowd

Gustave le Bon

Gustave le Bon

On May 7, 1841French social psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, inventor, and amateur physicist. Gustave le Bon was born. Le Bon is best known for his study of the psychological characteristics of crowds, The Crowd, Study of Popular Mind. His writings incorporate theories of national traits, racial and male superiority, herd behavior and crowd psychology.

Gustave le Bon was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, France. He studied medicine and also managed to travel through Europe, Asia, and North Africa during the 1860s to 1880s and wrote about archaeology and anthropology. Probably his first famous publication was Les Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des peuples, published in 1894.

Next to Gustave le Bon, also the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, the Italian lawyer and criminologist Scipio Sighele, and the famous German sociologist Georg Simmel performed studied on crowd behavior. Le Bon witnessed the Paris Commune, the rise of Georges Boulanger, and the Dreyfus Affair, which each highly influenced large parts of the population. Le Bon’s concept of ‘the crowd‘ was based on the social and political developments in Paris. The city became one of the largest, most important and most industrialized cities in Europe. Right wing politics were on the rise, and especially the German conquest of Alsace and Lorraine influenced these developments.

Le Bon’s model of the crowd theats it more as a unit in its composition and robs every individual member of their opinions, values and beliefs. As he says in one of his more pithy statements, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will”. The scientist’s key processes creating a crowd are: Anonymity, Contagion and Suggestibility. Anonymity refers to an individual becoming primitive, unreasoning, and emotional. Further, according to Le Bon, it provides to rational individuals a feeling of invincibility and the loss of personal responsibility. Contagiondescribes the spread of particular behaviors in the crowd. Individuals begin to sacrifice their personal interest for the collective interest. The latter, suggestibility, refers to the mechanism to which contagion is achieved.

Other social scientists made different observations. For instance that  crowd behavior is the consequence of the individuals that compose it. Floyd Allport argued that there was no actual ‘group mind’. It is believed that Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud was highly influenced by Gustave le Bon and Trotter. Bernays published a book titled Propaganda and declared that one of the features of democracy was the manipulationof the mass by media and advertising. Gustave le Bon are known to have influenced a great variety of politicians, including Benito Mussolini and Theodore Roosevelt.

At yovisto you can enjoy the lecture Introduction to Social Psychology by Professor Robb Willer at Berkeley University.

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