Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Crowd Psychology

Yesterday, the day after Palm Sunday, according to scripture and tradition, Jesus returned to the city of Jerusalem after spending the night with friends in Bethany.   It wasn’t at all like the day before (Palm Sunday).  No triumphal entry, no “hosannas,” no fanfare, no palm branches this time around. Where had the crowd gone?  The Palm Sunday crowd went the way of most crowds.  It faded away as quickly as it had gathered.  Why?  Because as the author of the Acts of the Apostles (19:32) wrote of another crowd, “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century suggested that “…we have a very imperfect knowledge of the human heart if we do not also examine it in crowds.”  Gustave Le Bon, sometimes known as the father of the study of crowd psychology, made such an examination back in the early 19th century. Le Bon defined a crowd as a group of individuals united by a common idea, belief, or ideology.  That idea, belief, or ideology which makes a crowd is not chosen by clear reasoning or the examination of any evidence.  Crowds accept ideas and beliefs superficially and use them as fuel for action.  When an individual becomes part of a crowd he  or she undergoes a profound psychological transformation—he or she ceases to operate as an individual.  “He is no longer himself,” writes Le Bon, “but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”  The person sacrifices his own personal ends and goals in favor of those of the crowd—“In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest for the collective interest.”  Whatever the idea or belief around which a crowd gathers, it is seldom, if ever, created by members of the crowd.  Instead, the idea or belief comes from the minds of others (the leaders) and that idea must be “thoroughly simplified” for it to unite and influence a crowd. 

Crowds are fickle precisely because they form on the basis of a “thoroughly simplified” idea or belief (no examination of evidence, no reasoning or thinking on the part of the individual).   “How numerous are the crowds that have heroically faced death for beliefs, ideas, and phrases that they scarcely understood!” (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon)   Le Bon’s insight can be applied to the Palm Sunday event of long ago and to the “March for Our Lives” event last Saturday.  It can be applied to national “crowds” (i.e. partisan politics, tribalism, nationalism, etc.).  I’m thinking, a crowd is one thing—a Movement is quite another.  I’m thinking ideology is one thing—a community  is quite another.

It is extremely important that we stretch our necks (our minds)
 above any and all crowd mentality.

No comments:

Post a Comment