In a classic, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, contrasts individual and crowd thinking.
“So how does a crowd think? To answer that question, we have to assume the existence of other laws than those of reason, for reason, of which only the individual is capable, has no power to sustain action or inculcate a belief. There is a limit, and Pascal has pointed it out for us: ‘For make no mistake, we are automata as much as we are minds, and that is why the instrument of persuasion is not demonstration. How few things are demonstrated! Proofs convince only the mind. Custom creates our strongest and crudest proofs, inducing submission in the unthinking part of our nature which draws the mind all unwitting with it.’
Crowd psychology inevitably perceived the contrast between totally conscious individual thought and a largely unconscious crowd thought drawing the mind ‘all unwitting with it’. In everyday life it is the first kind that is manifest; in the case of the hypnotised subject, it is the second. Using that analogy, Le Bon applied to crowds conclusions drawn from observing people under hypnosis. I should now like to look at the various aspects of the two kinds of thought in turn. It is easy to recognise them and illustrate them by means of contrasts.
Individual thought would seem to be critical, that is, logical and making use of conceptual ideas which are mostly abstract in nature. It describes objects and explains events with the help of theories linking a chain of reasoning that can be discussed and corrected in the light of observation of known facts. We know that contradictions can be involved and are aware of the gap between our reasoning and reality. If we eliminate the contradictions, we can achieve a coherent view of the facts we are examining and the techniques we are using. Individual thought is also independent of time, and the laws of logic alone determine the way in which ideas are linked together, which depends neither on our memories of the past nor the conclusions we wish to obtain. It is also orientate towards reality, which in the final analysis is all that matters, and that is why we question it and discuss it in detail, often polemically. We subject proofs to tests of their validity. Experience settles the argument and pronounces its verdict. Nothing, in the long run, is accepted if it cannot be shown to be true, and individual thought is therefore objective.
Crowd thinking, on the other hand, would seem to be automatic, being determined by stereotyped associations and remembered clichés. It makes use of concrete images. Le Bon indefatigably went on saying in every possible way that the masses were unable to use abstract reasoning and that it was consequently pointless to address them with an appeal to a faculty that they simply did not possess. In one of those tirades which are for authors what histrionic gestures are for barristers, he writes:
A chain of logical argumentation is totally incomprehensible to crowds, and for this reason it is permissible to say that they do not reason or that they reason falsely, and are not to be influenced by reasoning. Astonishment is felt at times on reading certain speeches at their weakness, and yet they had an enormous influence on the crowds which listened to them; but it is forgotten that they were intended to persuade collectivities and not to be read by philosophers.
(Le Bon, 1952: 66)
That perhaps does not sound too unlike a barrister arguing that the defendant was not responsible for his actions and at the same time smiling in complicity with the jury of ‘thinking men’ and ‘philosophers’.
If speeches of this kind have been so influential, the reason is to be found in their power to evoke images, to change sounds into visible signs, words into memories and names into characters. In short, crowds do not think of the world as it is, but as they are led to see and imagine it. They have no grasp of reality and are content with appearances. It is not that they flee from reality, but simply that they cannot distinguish between what things are and what they seem. Truth irremediably escapes them. They replace a hardly-bearable reality with an image and a scarcely tolerable present with the past. In Le Bon's view, ‘Appearances have always played a much more important part than reality in history, where the unreal is always of greater moment than the real’ (Le Bon, 1952: 68). The thought of the crowd is always composed of the already seen and the already experienced, and that is why, when we are caught like fish in the net of the crowd and have become waking dreamers, ideas enter our minds in the concrete form of diagrams, snapshots and other images.
No-one has bothered to check these biting assertions. They cannot of course be totally false, since mass communications or mass propaganda use them successfully every day. They are based on a solid tradition. St Thomas Aquinas had already said that nihil potest homo intellegere sine plumtasmata, that no-one can understand anything without images (and hence illusions), and Giordano's dictum that thinking is speculating with images repeats the same idea. Studies of hypnosis seemed to support this long-held view and to show that the ideas suggested under hypnosis are associated with lively images before being expressed in action. But a handful of suppositions is not a proof, a view which I accept without difficulty.”