Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/The Mob Mind


IN viewing social life among animals one is struck by the contagion of feeling in a herd or flock. Whatever the feeling called up, whether terror, hostility to a stranger, rage at hereditary enemies, sympathy for a stricken fellow, or the impulse to migrate, all the members of the group feel it, and feel it almost at once. If anything unusual occurs, a wave of excitement passes over the herd, followed by instant and unanimous response. Of inquiry or doubt or reflection there is no sign.

This prompt obedience to suggestions from one's fellows is accounted for the moment we recall the harsh conditions of animal existence. It is the gregarious animals that are least formidable by nature and hence most dependent on mutual aid. Instant fight or flight is the condition of their existence, and failure to cooperate promptly means death. By oft-repeated sifting out of the stupid, the heedless, or the willful, Nature builds up a marvelous suggestibility and a most alert response to sign. Not otherwise can we explain why a feeling should run like wildfire through a band of elephants or terror should strike through a herd of deer as a shock passes through a solid body.

The human analogue to the agitated herd is the mob. Mob comes from "mobile," and refers to mental state. A crowd, even an excited crowd, is not a mob; nor is an excited crowd bent on violence a mob. Great mental instability marks the true mob, and this characterizes only the crowd that is under the influence of suggestion. A lynching party may be excited, disorderly, and lawless, yet not be a true mob. The crowd that lynched thirteen Italians in New Orleans a few years ago, far from showing the wavering indecision of the genuine mob, seemed to know exactly what it wanted and just how to go about it. In this respect it stood in high contrast to the Cincinnati mob of 1886. What distinguished the New Orleans crowd was the absence of epidemic. Its perfect unanimity came not from an overmastering suggestion, but from the coming together of all who had been affected with the same grim rage at the news of Chief Hennessey's assassination.

Again, we must refuse the name "mob" to the disorderly masses that in times of tumult issue from the criminal quarters of great cities. In such cases there is an unchaining in each man of the evil and secret lusts of his heart on observing that opportunity is favorable and that others are like-minded. Safe from punishment or shame, the ragamuffin or hoodlum burns, loots, and riots in obedience not to a common impulse but to his natural inclination. It is this peculiar effect of numbers in bringing on the criminal mood that chiefly marks off the human crowd from the animal crowd.

More than any other animal, man is restrained by a morality founded not on impulse but on discipline. Animal morality is mainly the prompting of fellow-feeling. But by the long pressure of an artificial environment man is brought to submit himself to the constant sway of a moral code often quite alien to his impulses. Remove the fear of consequences by the anonymity of the crowd, take away the sense of personal responsibility by the participation of numbers, and people will step by step descend into depths of evil-doing and violence that measure how far their prevailing inclinations lie below the moral standard which social pressure has forced upon them. Animals, because they have been less moralized than men by education, rarely show any such collective demoralization.

A one-mindedness, therefore, the result not of reasoning or discussion or coming together of the like-minded, but of imitation, is the mark of the true mob. We think of the mob as excited simply because it is under stress of excitement that men become highly imitative. Fickleness and instability characterize it simply because mood changes promptly with every change in the nature of the suggestion. It is irrational because dominated not by the remembered teachings of experience but by the fleeting impressions of the moment. It is cowardly because its members, actuated not by stern purpose or set resolve but by mere suggestion, scatter in craven flight the moment the charm is broken. It is transitory because the orgy of excitement leads to fatigue and lessened power of response to stimuli from without. In a few hours the hyperæsthesia wears away, physical wants and sensations turn the attention inward, the psychic bond is broken, and the crowd disperses and goes home. A mob, then, defined for purposes of social psychology, is a crowd of people showing a unanimity due to mental contagion. Other traits of the mob of which much is made such—as ferocity, shamelessness, criminality, courage, intolerance, etc.—need not flow from suggestion at all. More often, as I have pointed out, they are the effect of the sense of numbers.

Analyzing the mob as thus defined, we find at the base of it that mental quality termed suggestibility which comes to light in gregarious animals, children, certain lunatics, hysterical patients, and hypnotized subjects. It dominates childhood, but fades as character sets and the will hardens. In adult life it is so over-borne by habit and reason as to be dominant only under abnormal conditions such as disease, fascination, or excitement.

Why, now, should this quality be heightened when one is in the midst of a crowd?

The inhibitive power which measures our ability to go our own way undisturbed grows with the variety and number of suggestions that reach us. This may be because conflicting suggestions block each other off. The power of independent choice seems to develop best when the clash of suggestions reduces to a minimum the ascendency of the outer world over the individual. This is why age, travel, and contact with affairs build up character. But when numerous identical suggestions beset one, one's power of resistance is gradually undermined. As many taps of a hammer fracture the bowlder, so the onset of multitudinous suggestion breaks the strongest will. Men who can readily throw off the thousand suggestions of everyday life will be quite swept away by the reiteration of a single idea from all sides. As a mighty organ compels even benches and windows to vibrate in unison with it, so the crowd dominated by a single mood emits a volume of suggestion that gives an emotional pitch and tone to every individual in it.

Besides the volume of suggestion possible in a crowd, there is usually a condition of excitement or expectancy. Frequently, too, there is a pressure on the body which prevents voluntary movement while conveying promptly to each all those electrifying swayings and tremors that express the emotions of the mass. The mere physical contact in the excited crowd, therefore, provides certain conditions of suggestibility.

A cross-section of the mob sometimes shows a concentric structure. There is in the center a leader from whom suggestions proceed. These, caught up by those near by and most dominated by his personality, are transmitted to the next circle with an added force. Thus the suggestion passes outward from zone to zone of the crowd, at each stage gathering volume and hence power to master the rest. That, therefore, which started at the center as fascination becomes sheer mental intimidation at the rim. This symmetrical type of mob has led some to look in every case for the leader who controls the mass by his personality or prestige. But the quest for a nucleus, while it makes the study of mobs more mysterious and sensational, certainly does not make it more scientific. Rarely does the primitive impulse proceed from one man. Usually the first orientation of minds is brought about by some object, spectacle, or event. This original phase, the moment it is observed by the members of the crowd, gives rise to three results: (1) By mere contagion the feeling extends to others till there is complete unanimity; (2) each feels more intensely the moment he perceives that the rest share his feeling; (3) the perceived unison calls forth a sympathy that makes the next agreement easier, and so paves the way for the mental unity of the crowd.

The mob is thus a formation that takes time. In an audience falling under the spell of an actor or an orator, a congregation developing the revival spirit, a crowd becoming riotous, or an army under the influence of panic, we can witness the stages by which the mob mood is reached. With the growing fascination of the mass for the individual, his consciousness contracts to the pin point of the immediate moment, and the volume of suggestion needed to start an impulse on its conquering career becomes less and less. In the end, perhaps, any commanding person can assume the direction of the mob.

It must be manifest, however, that there are a hundred cases of imitation of the many for one case where the entire mass throughout obeys a single person. In accounting for the mob, hypnosis has no such scope of application as the theory of mental intimidation. If we suppose that the eye of the leader or the gesture of the orator paralyzes the will of the crowd as the "bright object" of the hypnotizer overcomes his subject, we shall not get the mob without presence. But if the secret of its unanimity lies in mass suggestion, why is presence necessary? May there not be mob phenomena in a multitude of people not collected at one spot within sight and sound of each other?

It has long been recognized that the behavior of city populations under excitement shows the familiar characteristics of the mob quite apart from any thronging. Here we get unanimity,impulsiveness, exaggeration of feeling, excessive credulity, fickleness, inability to reason, and sudden alternations of boldness and cowardice. In fact, if you translate these qualities into public policy, you have the chief counts in the indictment which historians have drawn against the city democracies of old Greece and mediæval Italy.

These faults are due in part to the nervous strains of great cities. The continual bombardment of the attention by innumerable sense impressions is known to produce neurasthenia or hysteria, the peculiar malady of the city dweller. Then, too, there thrive in the sheltered life of the city many mental degenerates that would be unsparingly eliminated by the sterner conditions of existence in the country. But aside from this the behavior of city dwellers under excitement can best be understood as the result of mental contacts made possible by easy communication. While the crowd, with its elbow-touch and its heat has no doubt a maddening all its own, the main thing in it is the contact of minds. Let this be given, and the three consequences I have pointed out must follow. An expectant or excited man learns that a thousand of his fellow-townsmen have been seized by a certain strong feeling, and meets with their expression of this feeling. Each of these townsmen learns how many others are feeling as he does. Each stage in the consequent growth of this feeling in extent and in intensity is perceived, and so fosters sympathy and a disposition to go with the mass. Will we not inevitably by this series of interactions get that "out"-look which characterizes the human atom in the mob?

The bulletin, the flying rumor, "the man in the street," and the easy swarming for talk or harangue open those paths between minds, and prepare those contacts that permit the ambient mass to press almost irresistibly upon the individual. But why will this phenomenon be limited to the people huddled on a few square miles of city ground? Mental touch is not bound up with proximity. With the telegraph to collect and transmit the expressions and signs of the ruling mood, and the fast mail to hurry to the eager clutch of waiting thousands the still damp sheets of the morning daily, remote people are brought as it were into one another's presence. Through its organs the excited public is able to assail the individual with a mass of suggestion almost as vivid as if he actually stood in the midst of an immense crowd.

Formerly, within a day a shock might throw into a fever all within a hundred miles of its point of origin. The next day it might agitate the zone beyond, but meanwhile the first body of people would have cooled down and would be disposed to listen to reason. And so, while a wave of excitement passed slowly over a country, the entire folk mass was at no moment in the same state of agitation.

Now, however, our space-annihilating devices, by transmitting a shock without loss of time, make it all but simultaneous. A vast public shares the same rage, alarm, enthusiasm, or horror. Then, as each part of the mass becomes acquainted with the sentiment of all the rest, the feeling is generalized and intensified. A rise of emotional temperature results which leads to a similar reaction. In the end the public swallows up the individuality of the ordinary man, as the crowd swallows up the will of its members.

It is plain that in matters of policy this instant consensus of feeling or opinion works for ill if it issues in immediate action. Formerly the necessary slowness of focusing and ascertaining the common will insured pause and deliberation. Now the swift appearance of a mass sentiment threatens to betray us into hot-headed or ill-considered measures. Sudden heats and flushes take the place of reflection and resolve; and with this comes a growing impatience with the checks and machinery that prevent the public from giving immediate effect to its will. As the working of representative government thus becomes less clumsy, there disappears some of that wholesome deliberateness which has distinguished indirect from direct democracy.

Mob mind working in vast bodies of dispersed individuals gives us the craze or fad. This may be defined as that irrational unanimity of interest, feeling, opinion, or deed in a body of communicating individuals which results from suggestion and imitation. In the chorus of execration at a sensational crime, in the clamor for the blood of an assassin or dynamiter, in waves of national feeling, in war fevers, in political "landslides" and "tidal waves," in passionate "sympathetic" strikes, in cholera scares, in public frights, in popular delusions, in religious crazes, in "booms" and panics, in agitations, insurrections, and revolutions, we witness contagion on a gigantic scale, favored in some cases by popular hysteria. It is best to keep the term "craze" for an imitative unanimity arrived at under great excitement, while "fad" is that milder form of imitation which appears in sudden universal interest in some novelty.

As there must be in the typical mob a center which radiates impulses by fascination till they have subdued enough people to continue their course by sheer intimidation, so for the craze there must be an excitant, overcoming so many people that these can affect the rest by mere volume of suggestion. This first orientation is produced by some event or incident. The murder of a leader, an insult to an ambassador, the sermons of a crazy fanatic, the words of a "prophet" or "Messiah," a sensational proclamation, a scintillating phrase, the arrest of an agitator, a coup d'état, the advent of a new railroad, the collapse of a trusted banking house, a number of deaths by an epidemic, a series of mysterious murders, and an inexplicable occurrence such as a comet, an eclipse, a star shower, an earthquake, or a monstrous birth—each of these has been the starting point of some fever, mania, crusade, uprising, boom, panic, delusion, or fright. The more expectant, overwrought, or hysterical is the public mind, the easier it is to set up a great perturbation. Even clergymen noted a connection between the "great revival" of 1858 and the panic of 1857. After a series of public calamities, a train of startling events, a pestilence, earthquake, or war, the anchor of reason finds no "holding ground," and minds are blown about by every breath of passion or sentiment.

The fad originates in the surprise or interest excited by novelty. Roller-skating, blue glass, the planchette, a forty days' fast, the "new woman," tiddledy-winks, faith-healing, the "13–14–15" puzzle, baseball, telepathy, or the sexual novel attract those restless folk who are always running hither and thither after some new thing. This creates a swirl which rapidly sucks into its vortex the soft-headed and weak-minded, and at last, grown bigger, involves even the saner kind. As no department of life is safe from the invasion of novelty, we have all kinds of fads: literary fads like Maeterlinck or the Decadents; philosophic fads like pessimism or anarchism, religious fads like spiritualism or theosophy; hygienic fads like vegetarianism, "glaming," "fresh air," mush diet, or water cure; medical fads like lymph, tuberculin, and serum; personal fads like short hair for women, pet lizards, face enamel, or hypodermic injections of perfumery. And of these orders of fads each has a clientèle of its own.

In many cases we can explain vogue entirely in terms of novelty fascination and mob mind. But even when the new thing is a step in progress and can make its way by sheer merit, it does not escape becoming a fad. It will have its penumbral ring of imitators. So there is something of the fad even in bicycling, massage, antisepsis, skiagraphy, or physical culture. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to distinguish the fad from the enthusiastic welcome and prompt vogue accorded to a real improvement. For the uninitiate the only touchstone is time. Here as elsewhere "persistence in consciousness" is the test of reality. The mere novelty, soon ceasing to be novel, bores people and must yield to a fresh sensation; the genuine improvement, on the other hand, meets a real need and therefore lasts.

Unlike the craze, the fad does not spread in a medium specially prepared for it by excitement. It can not rely on heightened suggestibility. Its conquests, therefore, imply something above mere volume of suggestion. They imply prestige. The fad owes half its power over minds to the prestige that in this age attaches to the new. Here lies the secret of much that is puzzling.

The great mass of men have always had their lives ruled by usage and tradition. Not for them did novelties chase each other across the surface of society. The common folk left to the upper ten thousand the wild scurry after ruling fancy or foolery of the hour. In their sports, their sweethearting, their mating, their child-rearing, their money-getting, their notions of right and duty, they ran on quietly in the ruts deeply grooved out by generations of men. But a century or so ago it was found that this habit of "back"-look opposed to needed reforms the brutish ignorance, the crass stupidity, and the rhinoceros hide of bigotry of the unenlightened masses. Accordingly, the idea of the humanitarian awakening that accompanied the French Revolution was to lift the common folk—the third estate—from the slough of custom to the plane of choice and self-direction. And for a hundred years the effort has been to explode superstition, to diffuse knowledge, to spread light, and to free man from the spell of the past and turn his gaze forward.

The attempt has succeeded. The era of obscurantism is forever past. With school and book and press progress has been taught till with us the most damning phrase is "Behind the times!" But we now see that a good deal of the net result has been to put one kind of imitation in place of another. Instead of aping their forefathers, people now ape the many. The multitude has now the prestige that once clothed the past. Except where rural conservatism holds sway, mob mind in the milder forms of fad and craze begins to agitate the great deeps of society.

Frequently a half-education has supplied many ideas without developing the ability to choose among them. The power to discriminate between ideas in respect to their value lagging far behind the power to receive them, the individual is left with nothing to do but follow the drift. Ideas succeed one another in his mind not by trial and rejection, but in the order of their arrival on the scene. Formerly people rejected the new in favor of wont and tradition; now they tend to "go in" for everything, and atone for their former suspiciousness by a touching credulity. The world is abuzz with half-baked ecstatic people who eagerly champion a dozen different reforms in spelling, dress, diet, exercise, medicine, manners, sex relations, care of children, art, industry, education, and religion, each of which is to bring in the millennium all at once.

These minds that, broken from the old moorings of custom, drift without helm or anchor at the mercy of wind and tide, are social derelicts. They follow the currents of opinion; they can not create them. At all times ripples chase each other over the surface of society in the direction of improvement—sudden but all-pervading interest in "how the other half lives," in the abolition of war, in rational dress, in out-of-door sports, in "a white life for two." Had these ripples a real ground swell beneath them, the world might soon be made over. But, alas! they are only ripples. They wrinkle the surface of people's attention for an instant, but in a moment their fickle minds are responding to a new impulse in a different direction.

If this were to be the outcome of the attempt to emancipate the common man and fit him to be helmsman of society, we might well despair. Certainly the staid, slow-going man of olden times, plodding along the narrow but beaten path of usage, is as dignified a figure as the unsteady modern person whose ideas and preference flicker constantly in the currents of momentary popular feeling. The lanes of custom are narrow; the hedgerows are high, and view to right or left there is none. But there are as much freedom and self-direction in him who trudges along this lane as in the "emancipated" man who finds himself on an open plain, free to go in any direction, but nevertheless stampedes aimlessly with the herd.

The remedy for mob mind, whether presented in the liquefaction of our city folk under modern conditions of mental intimacy or in the mad rush of the public for the novelty of the hour, is not in replanting the hedgerows of custom. We must go forward, keeping in mind, however, that the chief present need is not to discredit the past but to discredit the mass. The spell of ancestors is broken; let us next break the spell of numbers. Without lessening obedience to the decision of majorities, let us cultivate a habit of doubt and review. In a good democracy blind imitation can never take the place of individual effort to weigh and judge. The frantic desire of frightened deer or buffalo to press to the very center of the throng does not befit civilized man. The huddling instinct has no place in strong character. Democracy's ideal is a society of men with neither the "back"-look on the past nor yet the "out"-look on their fellows, but with the "in"-look upon reason and conscience. We must hold always to a sage Emersonian individualism, that, without consecrating an ethics of selfishness, a religion of dissent, or a policy of anarchism, shall brace men to stand against the rush of the mass.