Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

— Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

“The receptivity of large masses is very limited. Their capacity to understand things is slight whereas their forgetfulness is great. Given this, effective propaganda must restrict itself to a handful of points, which it repeats as slogans as long as it takes for the dumbest member of the audience to get an idea of what they mean.”

— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“It’s better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

“Make yourselves sheep and the wolves will eat you.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

— Mark Twain

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

—  George Carlin

“Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice.”

—  Aldοus Huxley

“A crowd has the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

— Thomas Carlyle

 In the prior post, I had a brief look at things in our world today that appear to me to be seriously “broken”. Big things, like population. Much to my surprise, however, it turns out that world population is in fact fine and is set to max out around year 2100, assuming that we don’t blow up the world before then. What is broken, and has been broken forever or longer, is our ability to prevent wars.

Digging a bit into the why of wars led me to a whole bunch of stuff on crowds, and competition between and within them. While I had thought that a “crowd” was just too many folks in a space too small, the real crowd story is much different. Crowds are assemblages of individuals that go all the way from local rallies and sports crowds to states and nations.

There seems to be a distinction of some kind between crowds, which are strongly and purposefully directed, and herds that act together mostly without leadership. The latter might include mobs that come together spontaneously and briefly in response to some triggering situation or event. On this basis, what do we have running things today – crowds or herds – and is this good or bad?

Herds, crowds, and mobs are groups of people who differ mostly in behavior

Herds, crowds, mobs – are all groups of people that are differentiated mainly on characteristics and behavior. The Charles Mackay quote above speaks of “herds” but it is in his book on the “madness of crowds”. This tells me that the various terms for people groupings may really be quite subjective and not very helpful for understanding what is going on.

While Mackay offered many fascinating stories about the behaviour of people in groups ranging from the mundane to the truly mad, he offered no clear guidance as to what each group comprised or what its particular behaviors might be.

Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd has the real story

The French intellectual and polymath Gustave Le Bon is best known for his work on crowd psychology, particularly his 1895 text, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Here, Le Bon developed the view that crowds are not the sum of their individual parts, proposing instead that within crowds there forms a new and often unique psychological entity. The crux of Le Bon’s ideas around crowd behavior was the notion that this sort of hive-mind manifesting in crowds is entirely distinct from individual-level behavior.

This insight seems to be huge: A “crowd” is not an assemblage of individuals but instead a different organism, with its own particular characteristics and behavior. Individual behavior disappears and the crowd behavior takes over.

Some types of groups do not behave in this manner but act mainly under the various behaviors of distinct individuals in the group – individuals that continue to think and act mostly as individuals. These groups are not Le Bon “crowds”.

A Le Bon “crowd” is functionally a new organism with characteristics and behaviors that differ significantly from those of its constituent individuals.

Le Bon crowds range in size from a small localized group to large nations, but they become a “crowd” only when they coalesce into something distinctive and different. Not all groups are “crowds” by the Le Bon criteria. What are these criteria?

What is a Le Bon “crowd”?

From Wikipedia:

“Crowds. Le Bon theorized that the new entity, the ‘psychological crowd’, which emerges from incorporating the assembled population not only forms a new body but also creates a collective ‘unconsciousness’. As a group of people gather together and coalesce to form a crowd, there is a ‘magnetic influence given out by the crowd’ that transmutes every individual’s behaviour until it becomes governed by the ‘group mind’. This model treats the crowd as a unit in its composition, which robs every individual member of their opinions, values and beliefs.”

“Le Bon detailed three key processes that create the psychological crowd: i) Anonymity, ii) Contagion and iii) Suggestibility.”

Anonymity provides to rational individuals a feeling of invincibility and the loss of personal responsibility. An individual becomes primitive, unreasoning, and emotional. This lack of self-restraint allows individuals to ‘yield to instincts’ and to accept the instinctual drives of their ‘unconscious’.”

Contagion refers to the spread in the crowd of particular behaviors and individuals sacrifice their personal interest for the collective interest. “

Suggestibility is the mechanism through which the contagion is achieved; as the crowd coalesces into a singular mind, suggestions made by strong voices in the crowd create a space for the unconscious to come to the forefront and guide its behaviour. At this stage, the psychological crowd becomes homogeneous and malleable to suggestions from its strongest members. ‘The leaders we speak of,’ says Le Bon, ‘are usually men of action rather than of words. They are not gifted with keen foresight… They are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.’”

“Half-deranged”? Reading Le Bon’s book gave me a rather different perspective on crowd leaders. Crowds may at times be led by well-meaning, quite sane individuals for purposes that range from clear social good to heroic efforts. Crowds of all kinds are simply a part of everyday life, even way back in 1895, and probably much further, with a broad spectrum of leaders and their mostly-not-deranged psyches.

Leaders are central to Le Bon crowd behaviors

Le Bon saw leaders as providing the crowd with its particular intelligence and purpose: “The crowd demands a god before everything else”. And more:

“As soon as a certain number of living beings are gathered together, whether they be animals or men, they place themselves instinctively under the authority of a chief. “

“In the case of human crowds the chief is often nothing more than a ringleader or agitator, but as such he plays a considerable part. His will is the nucleus around which the opinions of the crowd are grouped and attain to identity. He constitutes the first element towards the organisation of heterogeneous crowds, and paves the way for their organisation in sects; in the meantime he directs them. A crowd is a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.”

“The leaders we speak of are more frequently men of action than thinkers. They are not gifted with keen foresight, nor could they be, as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity.”

“The intensity of their faith gives great power of suggestion to their words. The multitude is always ready to listen to the strong-willed man, who knows how to impose himself upon it.”

“Men gathered in a crowd lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack.”

“The arousing of faith – whether religious, political, or social, whether faith in a work, in a person, or an idea – has always been the function of the great leaders of crowds, and it is on this account that their influence is always very great.”

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. A crowd attracts a leader. A leader attracts a crowd. Leaderless groups are mobs or herds. Crowds need leaders for several reasons, according to Le Bon:

“> a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.

 > an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.

 > the individual forming part of a psychological crowd. He is no longer conscious of his acts.

 > fundamental characteristics of a crowd we stated that it is guided almost exclusively by unconscious motives. Its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain. In this respect a crowd is closely akin to quite primitive beings.

 > Crowds are as incapable of willing as of thinking for any length of time.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Francis of Assisi, Napoleon, Nero


Crowds can be motivated toward good as well as destruction

Le Bon was very careful not to characterize crowd behavior as typically destructive. Crowd behavior nearly always reflects the qualities and direction of its leader. Some examples or reference points in leadership:

The Good: Francis of Assisi was an Italian Catholic friar, deacon, and mystic. He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity. In addition to establishing one of the most important Catholic orders in history for both brothers and sisters, upon whom he imposed the same vow of poverty he himself had taken, he actively and passionately preaching the message of the gospels throughout the world; succoring the poor, hungry and sick – particularly lepers; and inventing the Christian tradition of the Christmas creche, Francis in fact managed to change the world for the better.

The Bad: Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military leader and emperor who conquered much of Europe after rising through the military during the French Revolution. After seizing political power in France in a 1799 coup d’état, he crowned himself emperor in 1804. Shrewd, ambitious and a skilled military strategist, Napoleon successfully waged war against various coalitions of European nations and expanded his empire. However, after a disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated the throne two years later and was exiled to the island of Elba. In 1815, he briefly returned to power in his Hundred Days campaign. After a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he abdicated once again and was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he died at age 51.

The Ugly: Nero is known as one of Rome’s most infamous rulers, notorious for his cruelty, debauchery and madness. The last male descendant of the emperor Augustus, Nero succeeded to the throne in AD 54 aged just 16 and died a violent death at 30. His turbulent rule saw momentous events including the Great Fire of Rome, Boudicca’s rebellion in Britain, the execution of his own mother and first wife, grand projects and extravagant excesses. Perhaps the most infamous of Rome’s emperors, Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 A.D.) ruled Rome from 54 A.D. until his death by suicide 14 years later. He is best known for his debaucheries, political murders, persecution of Christians and a passion for music that led to the probably apocryphal rumor that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 A.D.

Even in periods of war, crowd behavior can be constructive. Major protests against the Vietnam War in 1969 were instrumental in helping build public opposition to and ultimately ending this hugely destructive conflict. Protests however may or may not be crowdlike in that their leadership may be minimal and well-dispersed.

Vietnam War protest in Washington DC on November 15, 1969

Mass movements in the view of Eric Hoffer

San Francisco longshoreman and social philosopher Eric Hoffer published what has become a classic in the psychology of mass movements. From Wikipedia:

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements is a non-fiction book authored by the American social philosopher Eric Hoffer. Published in 1951, it depicts a variety of arguments in terms of applied world history and social psychology to explain why mass movements arise to challenge the status quo. Hoffer discusses the sense of individual identity and the holding to particular ideals that can lead to extremism and fanaticism among both leaders and followers.”

“Hoffer initially attempts to explain the motives of the various types of personalities that give rise to mass movements in the first place and why certain efforts succeed while many others fail. He goes on to articulate a cyclical view of history such that why and how said movements start, progress and end is explored. Whether intended to be cultural, ideological, religious, or whatever else, Hoffer argues that mass movements are broadly interchangeable even when their stated goals or values differ dramatically. This makes sense, in the author’s view, given the frequent similarities between them in terms of the psychological influences on its adherents. Thus, many will often flip from one movement to another, Hoffer asserts, and the often shared motivations for participation entail practical effects. Since, whether radical or reactionary, the movements tend to attract the same sort of people in his view, Hoffer describes them as fundamentally using the same tactics including possessing the rhetorical tools. As examples, he often refers to the purported political enemies of communism and fascism as well as the religions of Christianity and Islam.”

Hoffer brought the understanding of crowd behavior into the twentieth century but primarily in terms of very large mass movements such as nations. He echoed Le Bon’s fundamental observations, however, as Wikipedia further notes:

“In mass movements, an individual’s goals or opinions are unimportant. Rather, the mass movement’s “chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice”. Mass movements have several means.”

“Mass movements demand a “total surrender of a distinct self”. One identifies the most as “a member of a certain tribe or family,” whether religious, political, revolutionary, or nationalist. Every important part of the true believer’s persona and life must ultimately come from their identification with the larger community; even when alone, the true believer must never feel isolated and unwatched. Hoffer identifies this communal sensibility as the reappearance of a “primitive state of being” common among pre-modern cultures. Mass movements also use play-acting and spectacle designed to make the individual feel overwhelmed and awed by their membership in the tribe, as with the massive ceremonial parades and speeches of the Nazis.”

“Mass Formation Psychosis (MFP)”: Yet another crowd phenomenon

The “madness of crowds”, so well-described by Charles Mackay in 1841, included examples from alchemy, crusades, duels, economic bubbles, fortune-telling, haunted houses, the Drummer of Tedworth, the influence of politics and religion on the shapes of beards and hair, magnetizers (influence of imagination in curing disease), murder through poisoning, prophecies, popular admiration of great thieves, popular follies of great cities, and relics. His was a largely journalistic style, however, with limited discussion of causes.  

Fast-forward to our present times of COVID (ca 2020-2022, so far), we now have yet another flavor of Le Bon to consider: “mass formation psychosis”. Mass Formation, a concept that seems to have been developed by Dr. Mattias Desmet, a psychologist and a statistician at the University of Ghent in Belgium. When he says “mass” formation, you can think of this as equivalent to “crowd” formation.

You will no doubt be surprised to hear that crowds (aka masses) actually form or group into, well, formations (aka groups). Who knew?

Beyond this astonishing finding by Professor Mattias, who is a psychologist, he went even further – relating this earthshaking discovery to good old Gustave (Le Bon) but further defining it as a “psychosis”. Psychologists, I am told, do things like this sometimes. As has been suggested above, Le Bon crowds come together for all kinds of reasons – most of which are not psychotic.

But today, we have whatever-is-happening-out-there being redefined as a mass formation (crowd) gone psychotic. This supposedly explains everything. Or maybe not.

What is “mass formation psychosis” in practice?

Not singling out Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute (SWFI)  except as an example, we have from them this definition: “What is Mass Formation Psychosis?”:

“Psychosis is when people lose some contact with reality. Mass formation psychosis is when a large part of a society focuses its attention to a leader(s) or a series of events and their attention focuses on one small point or issue. Followers can be hypnotized and be led anywhere, regardless of data proving otherwise. A key aspect of the phenomena is that the people they identify as the leaders – the one’s that can solve the problem or issue alone – they will follow that leader(s) regardless of any new information or data. Furthermore, anybody who questions the leader’s narrative are attacked and disregarded.”

“There are four key components needed for an environment to experience a mass formation psychosis: lack of social bonds or decoupling of societal connections, lack of sense-making (things don’t make sense), free-floating anxiety, and free-floating psychological discontent. Free-floating anxiety is a general sense of uneasiness that is not tied to any particular object or specific situation.”

This huge addition to Le Bon’s theory seems to revolve around people losing contact with reality. Who ever heard of folks losing contact with reality? Assuming anyone today can actually identify the reality that they are losing contact with.

Such a definition seems to mean that a Le Bon crowd in these COVID times is in fact experiencing a serious mental or psychotic disorder – a psychosis. You know of course what psychosis is:

Psychosis: A mental disorder characterized by a disconnection from reality. Psychosis may occur as a result of a psychiatric illness like schizophrenia. In other instances, it may be caused by a health condition, medications, or drug use. Possible symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, talking incoherently, and agitation. This might involve seeing or hearing things that other people cannot see or hear (hallucinations) and believing things that are not actually true (delusions). The person with the condition usually isn’t aware of his or her behavior. Treatment may include medication and talk therapy.”

Do you think that COVID responses are largely psychotic in nature?

My answer would be a definite NO! These responses seem mostly unwise, and in places malevolent or even worse, but people are responding as best they can to an unfolding, fear-dominated reality. Existing leadership is minimal or worse, so the Le Bon crowd definitions don’t seem to apply. Are we then dealing mostly with fear-driven, weakly-led herds? Responding to serious fear is in most cases not psychotic but possibly instead an indicator of solid mental health.

Whether we are dealing with Le Bon crowds or Mackay herds, much today is seriously amiss. These are not normal times in any respect. The big question is how whatever-is-going-on may play out over (hopefully) the near future.

Le Bon saw crowds disintegrating and herd behaviors taking over as their driving leadership failed or weakened. Is our present leadership failing, or at least weakening? My sense is that this is definitely happening. Great Resetters (see here and here) themselves seem to be getting reset. They are scrambling to maintain relevance in our fast-changing, chaotic world. Might it be the Resetters themselves who are becoming psychotic?

My take: No Le Bon crowds or MFP, but just chaotically-led herds

I don’t know anyone who I might characterize as even mildly psychotic. Worried, even fearful, yes, but doing their best in a terribly difficult situation. Badly guided? Strongly coerced? Very unsure? Yes to most or all of these, I think.

Mass Formation Psychosis seems to me more of a current fad and distraction than a helpful situation diagnosis. It will pass.

Leadership almost everywhere today seems highly dispersed, generally weak and conflicted, both internally and externally. I have just read about “crumbling narratives” in a few places. Lots of things besides narratives are crumbling.

Le Bon crowds generally require strong leadership. Since strong leadership today seems to be in seriously short supply (like most everything else), we probably don’t have many, if any, real Le Bon crowds active today.

What’s left? Herds, I’m afraid. In some places like France, mobs seem to be more in evidence. Is this good or bad news?

“Herd behavior is the behavior of individuals in a group acting collectively without centralized direction. … Voting, demonstrations, riots, general strikes, sporting events, religious gatherings, everyday decision-making, judgement and opinion-forming, are all forms of human-based herd behavior.”

— Wikipedia

Herd behavior plus rational responses to fear

Being afraid, as noted above, is not psychotic but often very rational behavior given a person’s state of knowledge and understanding. A herd-type group of such people simply tells us by its behavior what the group is truly, rationally, concerned about.

A misinformed, or incompletely informed, herd will do some very strange things if we judge this behavior relative to what fully, accurately informed folks might do. The herd may well end up doing some very destructive things in response to a tough situation, but even this kind of response makes sense to the herd members. Again, being wrong – if indeed they are – is not psychosis.

Bottom line:

A crowd is not an assemblage of individuals but instead a different organism, with its own particular characteristics and behavior. It usually has a strong leader. A herd does not need a leader but simply a situation that encourages behavior as a group. Crowds can create and change civilizations. They can also drive destructions of enormous magnitude. Crowds dominate our world today but it is far from clear yet where our crowds are taking us. Do we have mostly crowds today, or mostly just herds? My conclusion leans strongly toward herds.

Related Reading

As you might expect, almost everything these days has a COVID context. One outspoken voice at present is Robert Malone, MD who is “… an internationally recognized scientist/physician and the original inventor of mRNA vaccination as a technology, DNA vaccination, and multiple non-viral DNA and RNA/mRNA platform delivery technologies.” Dr. Malone recently weighed in on mass formation psychosis:

“A brief overview of Mass Formation, which was developed by Dr. Mattias Desmet. He is a psychologist and a statistician. He is at the University of Ghent in Belgium.  I think Dr. Mattias is onto something about what is happening and he calls this phenomena: MASS FORMATION PSYCHOSIS”

“So, when he says ‘mass’ formation, you can think of this as equivalent to ‘crowd’ formation. One can think of this as: CROWD PSYCHOSIS”

“The conditions to set up mass formation psychosis include lack of social connectedness and sensemaking as well as large amounts of latent anxiety and passive aggression. When people are inundated with a narrative that presents a plausible ‘object of anxiety’ and strategy for coping with it, then many individuals group together to battle the object with a collective singlemindedness. This allows people to stop focusing on their own problems, avoiding personal mental anguish. Instead, they focus all their thought and energy on this new object.”

“As mass formation progresses, the group becomes increasingly bonded and connected. Their field of attention is narrowed and they become unable to consider alternative points of view.  Leaders of the movement are revered, unable to do no wrong.”

“Left unabated, a society under the spell of mass formation will support a totalitarian governance structure capable of otherwise unthinkable atrocities in order to maintain compliance. A note: mass formation is different from group think. There are easy ways to fix group think by just bringing in dissenting voices and making sure you give them platforms.  It isn’t so easy with mass formation.  Even when the narrative falls apart, cracks in the strategy clearly aren’t solving the issue, the hypnotized crowd can’t break free of the narrative.  This is what appears to be happening now with COVID-19.  The solution for those in control of the narrative is to produce bigger and bigger lies to prop up the solution.  Those being controlled by mass formation no longer are able to use reason to break free of the group narrative.”

“Of course, the obvious example of mass formation is Germany in the 1930s and 40s. How could the German people who were highly educated, very liberal in the classic sense; western thinking people… how could they go so crazy and do what they did to the Jews? How could this happen?”

“To a civilized people?  A leader of a mass formation movement will use the platform to continue to pump the group with new information to focus on.  In the case of COVID-19, I like to use the term “fear porn.”  Leaders, through main stream media and government channels continuously  feed the “beast” with more messaging that focus and further hypnotize their adherents.”

“Studies suggest that mass formation follows a general distribution:

> 30% are brainwashed, hypnotized, indoctrinated by the group narrative

> 40% in the middle are persuadable and may follow if no worthy alternative is perceived

> 30% fight against the narrative.”

61880cookie-checkHerd Behaviour and the Madness of Crowds