How Relevant Are the Early Theories of Le Bon and Freud?

04 Apr 2018

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How relevant are the early theories of Le Bon and Freud in comparison to more contemporary theories of crowds?


One of the earliest theories of crowd behaviour was presented by Gustav Le Bon in 1895, which he referred to as group mind theory (Le Bon, 1895). He viewed crowd behaviour as acting according to primitive impulses which are lacking in reasoning and rationality. Le Bon proposed that individuals in a crowd behave in accordance with a ‘law of mental unity of crowds’ and no longer identify themselves as individuals, instead becoming anonymous members of a group who lose their sense of self and responsibilities (Bendersky, 2007). They become easily aroused or agitated, and descend into barbarism whereby individual conscience is overtaken by the ‘law of mental unity’ (Le Bon, 1908). Due to their large numbers and anonymity, the crowd gains a sense of strength and power, leading to a ‘special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotised individual finds himslf in the hands of the hypnotiser’ (Le Bon, 1908; Ginneken, 1992: 131), rendering the individual no longer conscious of his actions. Despite its lack of evidence, Le Bon’s ‘mob psychology’ became a popular theory and continues to be a powerful social influence, including by those in authority (Banyard, 1989).

Similarly to Le Bon, Freud (1922) proposed that the collective mind is led almost exclusively by the unconscious. According to Freud (1922), the crowd ‘unlocks’ the individual unconscious mind; the super ego, or conscience, which he maintained controls civilised behaviours, is exceeded by the uncivilised id impulses, or instinctual drive part of the psyche, as provoked by the leader of the crowd. Likened to the hypnosis state identified by Le Bon, identification with and desire for approval from the leader suspends the super ego (Freud, 1922) and associated normal judgement subdues the internalised values of right and wrong and impulse control. Interestingly, Freud identifies that crowd members accept the influence of the group due to a need to feel in harmony with the power the group and its leader exerts, observed in later studies of conformity (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). In later years, Freud (1949) moves beyond his basic drive theory towards the acknowledgment and importance of social relationships, such as that of the family, leading to advancements in the area of object relations.

Le Bon’s observations of the behaviour of crowds led to the development of a concept referred to as deindividuation, which was first introduced in the 1950s (Festinger et al. 1952). While early theories of crowds suggested that they acted as a primitive mob, Deindividuation theory formed a modern counterpart to this idea. Zimbardo (1969) based his approach largely on Le Bon’s general perspective by proposing that people in crowds experience deindividuation; a loss of their own personal identity, enabling them to merge anonymously into the crowd. His proposal that this loss of identity means that primitive, uncivilised tendencies emerge and people are then prepared to act in ways that are aggressive, cruel and anti-social, compared to how they may act as individuals, is similar to the early observations and theories put forward by both Le Bon and Freud.

Early explanations of the effects of deindividuation suggested that a reduced sense of public accountability weakens the normal restraints against impulsive and aggressive behaviour (Festinger et al. 1952; Zimbardo, 1969). Explanations of deindividuation have however evolved over the decades; from a focus on loss to the finding that cues that are specific to the situation evoke social norms that guide behaviour within anonymous groups, leading to a reformulation of the mental processes involved in deindividuation (Diener, 1980). This view holds that situations that reduced public accountability, such as group size (Mann, 1981) and anonymity, do not simply lead to a loss of the salience of people’s personal identities but leads to the loss of objective self-awareness (Diener, 1980). The salience of group identities is enhanced and consequently, individuals in the crowd are more responsive to tensions within the group, increasing the potential for disorder (Schweingruber, 2000). This more recent explanation suggests that these same features of group situations promote greater conformity to situation-specific social norms.

Emergent norm theory represented a shift from the earlier theories which focussed on pathological crowd behaviour (Reicher, 2001), by considering crowd behaviour as a norm-governed behaviours which are evident in all types of groups. According to Turner & Killian (1972), the fact that a crowd has no formal organisation to regulate behaviour makes it distinctive. The uniformity of the crowd is an illusion created by the distinct actions of prominent crowd members (Turner, 1964). These acts imply a norm, and consequently there is a pressure to conform to these norms, which is likely to increase the potential for antisocial behaviour (Cabinet Office, 2009). Emergent norm theory one of the first to refer to crowd behaviour as normal (Reicher, 2001) and allows researchers to consider collective action and behaviour as normal social processes which possess internal coherence, bound by rules and norms. It does not however account for cultural variations in crowd behaviours (Reicher, 2001).

The social identity model of crowd behaviour is based on social identity theory and self-categorisation theory (Turner et al. 1987). Social Identity Theory (SIT) differs from the other positions, in stressing that control of the crowd occurs via a new shared social identity (Reicher, 1996a; Stott & Reicher, 1998a) rather than a loss of identity or of control over their behaviours. It proposes that when social identity is salient, group behaviour will occur irrespective of anonymity and that people interact with other people as representatives of their social group, which acts as an interface which shape their interactions (Reicher, 2001). Importantly, SIT proposes that control comes from the individual rather than from pressure from others, so when an individual identifies with the crowd, they accept and adhere to the crowd norms as their own. As with Emergent Theory, the norms are evident in the cultural, ideological, political and situationally constructed norms. The SIT fundamental principle of a shared social identity has remained an important concept in subsequent studies of individual behaviours within crowds.

Le Bon’s early theories about crowd behaviour led to important research within the area of crowd behaviour and remains important due to the influence his perspective has had in later and more recent theories of collective and crowd behaviours. His general perspective was used in the research on deindividuation, which conveys the power of situations in determining people’s behaviour in a variety of large group situations and remains prominent in the study of group behaviour (Reicher et al. 1995). However, it makes implicit value judgements about crowds, dwells on loss, and suggests that people in crowds lose all manner of rational thinking. While it appears that deindividuation plays a role in understanding the antisocial behaviour tendencies of crowds, research into crowds and the way that people in crowds perceive what is happening, suggests that his theory is not as powerful as described. Freud’s (1922) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego is one of his most significant contributions to understanding mass psychology and led to many subsequent studies on mass psychology and group dynamics.

More recent studies suggest that crowd behaviour is more rational and structured that it is often presented as being. Contemporary theories of crowd behaviour discard the specifics of these earlier approaches and instead move this area of study forward by considering how a norm emerges from within the crowd, which enabled social psychologists to view collective behaviour as a social process bound by social norms. Social Identity Theory enables understanding of the order and purpose of the crowd in terms of the common identity of its members. Theories of crowd behaviour, such as SIT (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and deindividuation theory (Festinger et al. 1952) suggest that crowds often behave in a common manner in yielding to the social influence of the crowd (Myers, 2005). Individual crowd members do however differ in their vulnerability to social influence therefore variables within the situational context may influence behavioural outcomes.

Theories of crowd behaviours have significantly evolved over the decades since the ideas put forward by Le Bon and Freud. They are not taken into account in the consideration of crowd behaviours in the present time like more contemporary theories such as the social identity model of crowd behaviour (Cabinet Office, 2009). However, they do present in the evolution of the associated research in the consideration of the development of the ideas specific to crowd behaviour. With the continued development of theories such as the Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE) (Klein et al. 2007), which retains the fundamental principle of anonymity (Cabinet Office, 2009), and the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behaviour (ESIM) (Drury & Reicher, 1999), research is beginning to reach an analysis which brings together many levels of explanation, which is needed within the area of crowd behaviour research.

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