Le Bon’s view

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Last updated: March 30, 2019

Le Bon was a nineteenth century sociologist/philosopher who believed that when people joined large, relatively unstructured social groups, they sometimes engaged in spontaneous and atypical collective behaviour. ‘The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes’ (Le Bon, 1960, p. 43); this state was later named deindividuation by Festinger et al. (1952).Contagion theory, developed by Le Bon to explain crowd action, holds that once submerged in a group a collective group mind is put in place of the individuals, effectively, a single mind is subjected to ‘the law of the mental unity of crowds’ (Le Bon, 1960, p. 44). All men, according to Le Bon, are born with general qualities, such as passions and instincts, which become common property when the group mind takes over; contagion then causes crowd members to experience similar thoughts and emotions.

The fact that crowds were supposedly intellectually inferior, driven by emotion and instinct and free of civilized restraint; their behaviour was seen as akin to children and savages. Le Bon dismissed the possibility of them having anything positive to say, they cannot be reasoned with and are effectively crazed people; ‘from the moment they form part of a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of observation’ (Le Bon, 1960, p. 53). Le Bon proposes, with perhaps a slight bitterness over the French revolution, that crowds need repressing with harsh words and harsh treatment.

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Le Bon effectively suggests that individuals become deindividuated when placed in situations involving anonymity, contagion and suggestibility. Subsequent studies of crowds support some of Le Bon’s arguments, although the extremity of the action clearly depends, in large part, on the type of crowd being observed. In contrast to Le Bon, Floyd Allport expounded the convergence theory which in direct contrast, rejected any idea of a group mind and effectively accused Le Bon of talking in a babble of tongues (Allport, 1933).Allport held that individuals who join groups often possess similar needs and personal characteristics.

‘The individual in the crowd behaves exactly as he would behave alone, only more so’. (Allport, 1924, cited in Hogg and Abrahams, 1988, p. 148), The most obvious step from this would be to say that rioters would thus be expected to have violent personalities.

However their has been no success in identifying any traits that may lead an individual to participate in a riot (Turner and Killian, 1987).Allport believed that violence would only occur if a group of people got too large, and start to struggle whereby instinctual urges then dictate what will occur. Although Allport’s theory differs from Le Bon’s in a number of ways he agrees that crowds are intellectually inferior and driven by emotion, when the number of participants gets too large. The first study to proceed from the Le Bonian theory was that of Festinger et al.

(1952) who looked to see what effect deindividuation has on individuals in a group.They concluded that deindividuation within a group reduces inner restraint and makes the group more attractive to its members. ‘Under conditions where the member is not individuated in the group, there is likely to occur for the member a reduction of inner restraints against doing various things’ (Festinger et al. , 1952, p.

382). The theory was then further developed by Zimbardo, who was primarily interested in the effects of anonymity on self-conscious behaviour. Zimbardo understood that deindividuation is the process by which a person is prevented by situational factors present in a group from becoming self-aware.Deindividuation is thought to be synonymous with the loss of personal identity; Zimbardo held that as the individual is the ‘self’, when attention is diverted from the individual (who becomes anonymous) onto the group, there is no ‘self’ and therefore no basis for behavioural standards – people become disinhibited.

Though Zimbardo makes no claims as to the intellectual state of crowd members he does agree with Le Bon’s claim that deindividuated individuals are driven by emotions and free from civilised restraints.Zimbardo has conducted a number of experiments on deindividuation and the effects of anonymity on social behaviour which confirm Le Bon’s theory. He concluded that the deindividuated state itself appears to involve two basic components: reduced self-awareness (i. e. minimal self-consciousness, lack of conscious planning, uninhibited speech and actions) and altered experiencing (disturbances in concentration and judgment, time distortions, extreme emotions). Evidence indicates that this state of deindividuation sets the stage for more extreme behaviours – for example the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Zimbardo in 1979.However, because deindividuation leads to behavioural changes it could therefore lead to positive behaviour.

Zimbardo has been criticised by Johnson and Downing (1979) for his experiments inducing anonymity using costumes. Zimbardo (1969) originally used Ku Klux Klan (KKK) costumes to disguise people, the theory being that they would be more likely to give an electric shock to people than those who were not disguised. The people in the KKK costumes did shock people more than the others; however an experiment carried out by Johnson and Downing replaced the KKK outfits with those of nurses.According to Zimbardo the use of a costume would induce anonymity and therefore the nurses should shock more than a non-anonymous individual, this was not the case. This is one of many experiments that show that people are more conscious of societal norms, (i.

e. nurses associated with healing) even when deindividuated, than was first thought by Le Bon. Diener et al. (1976) refined Zimbardo’s theory by conducting experiments which manipulated specific variables (anonymity, group presence and altered responsibility) to see the effect on inhibition.They employed ‘trick or treaters’ as subjects and measured whether the children disobeyed prior instructions from the experimenters not to take more than one candy. They found that ‘children in anonymous groups stole significantly more frequently than anonymous alone youngers’ (Diener et al. , 1976, p.

181). Of the children who were in groups and anonymous, 80% stole more than one candy, compared to only 8% of those who visited individually and were not anonymous.The results back up Le Bon’s theory, though the study also shows effects of modelling, whereabouts a “leader” initiates the antisocial activity; which leads to the question of how they could be completely free from restraint and driven by emotion and instincts if the deindividuated subjects are awaiting a response from an “authoritative” figure.

The study has also been criticised for generalising its results onto deindividuated groups (Postmes ; Spears, 1998); the stealing is seen as a very minor transgression (unlike rioting crowds), and is also rewarding for individuals, which is why some steal money and others do not.Maslach (1974) believes that people individuate themselves when there is a possibility of praise or reward but deindividuate when punishment is likely. Anonymity will disinhibit behaviour if punishment was previously causing inhibition (for example a thief will try to disguise himself to prevent his real identity being discovered by the police, which would result in his arrest). According to Diener ‘deindividuated persons react in an unthinking way to emotions, external cues, and immediate external reinforcements’ (Diener, 1980, p. 30). Individual behaviour in groups is determined by situational norms and environmental stimuli. Therefore a person may become destructive if deindividuated whilst angry; childish and silly if happy and given cues for such actions. This behaviour will be judged as either socially acceptable or not depending on societies norms.

This differs greatly from the kind of ‘mob’ that Le Bon describes, people are not necessarily violent or mindless; however Diener still lends support to the cause of contagion theory.A more contemporary development to the deindividuation tale was added by Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982, 1989); ‘deindividuation is defined as an intraindividual process in which antecedent social conditions reduce private self awareness, thereby creating a subjective deindividuated state’ (Prentice-Dunn and Rogers, 1989, p, 89). Their differential self awareness theory (1983) offered a distinction between public self awareness and private self awareness.

If a persons public self awareness is blocked and they become anonymous they feel less accountable as they are unaware of societal norms.However deindividuation can only occur if a persons private self awareness is blocked, this leads to physiological arousal and group cohesiveness. All theories agree that being in a group will lead to deindividuation and that this can lead to anti-normative and disinhibited behaviour. However what the previous theories have neglected is that groups could have the power and the will to influence society; they also overlook that the manner in which the crowds act could be due to localised group norms. Might aggressive behaviour (supposedly associated with deindividuation) actually be normative in specific situations (e. . gang wars).

Turner and Killian (1972), in their emergent norm theory stipulate that guiding norms emerge in specific contexts (Postmes and Spears, 1998, p. 241) and that crowd behaviour has a normative structure derived from the behaviour of prominent individuals before action is taken. This would explain why the anonymity variable has led to so many varying results. Lastly social identity model of deindividuation side effects (SIDE) (Reicher, 1984, 1987) takes into account the norms that are salient in the specific situation. Crowd behaviour involves a change rather than a loss of identity’ (Brown, 2000, p. 18).

The SIDE model explains that anonymity, group cohesiveness and immersion can actually lead to conformity within the group (Reicher, 1984, 1987, 1996), this is supported by studies carried out by Sherif (1936) into group immersion. Reicher holds that people join crowds due to the basis on which they are formed and the distinct boundary that exists between in-group and out-groups (i. e. opposing sides at a football match).When category membership is obvious and the individual conforms to the attributes which are inferred from actions performed by other members; which in turn defines whether the group perform constructively or destructively. Reicher demonstrated this in his field study of the St.

Pauls riot (1984) in which participants identified each other as members of the community and attacked institutions (i. e. police, banks etc. ) which they felt were repressing them whilst actively protecting small local businesses.Conversely they also showed they were free from reason when they later barred the fire brigade (arriving to put out fires) and put lives under threat. This could be attributed to distinct groups within the crowd though, different groups have different norms and react differently to outside stimulus.

This example goes against the description of them by Le Bon as intellectually inferior and free from the restraints of civilised life and reason; the crowd had an objective and used whatever means necessary to get their point across.Recent studies by Postmes ; Spears (1998) looked at whether deindividuation is the cause of disinhibited and anti-normative behaviour; they found only small and highly variable effects which cannot be generalised from (Postmes ; Spears, 1998, p. 252). ‘Deindividuating manipulations of anonymity, group size and self awareness foster adherence to situational norms and have comparatively little impact on behaviour that is anti-normative according to general social norms’ (Postmes ; Spears, 1998, p.

252).The fact that people do deindividuate doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intellectually comparable to a savage and driven by purely emotion. Protests, strikes and riots are all examples of purposeful goal directed co-operation between a large number of people. With social organisation, individuals can fulfil joint goals much quicker when in large numbers – “Many hands make light the work”. This is shown when groups like the Samaritans and Red Cross go out in groups and perform socially positive actions. Even Le Bon would not have described such organisations as intellectually inferior, driven by their instincts and without reason.

In conclusion Le Bon’s theory on crowd behaviour is still one of the great theories on crowd dynamics; however his lack of empirical or experimental research is shown up in more contemporary work. Theories have been built upon the back of Le Bon’s work for the last century and will continue to be for many centuries to come. At this point in time though, the outlook is not favourable for Le Bon’s theory of the crowd; the SIDE theory (Reicher, 1984, 1987) is widely supported by much evidence (Sherif, 1936; Diener, 1980; Reicher, 1984, 1987, 1996; Postmes ; Spears, 1998) and seems to make more sense out of a uniquely social event.

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