In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.
“THE GREAT SOCIAL MASSES provide for our observation a multitude of actions and reactions, people in a state of change themselves and also changing others and groups coming into being and disappearing before our eyes. If we look at them over a long enough period of time we observe not only variations but also repetitions, contrast and homogeneity, similarity and dissimilarity, the two categories, in fact, of basic data. In organic nature we talk of mutations and heredity; in social nature we are dealing with inventions and imitations. An inventor disturbs the order of things, an imitator re-establishes it. The former has produced successive waves and hence a development, the second repeated uniformity and hence a tradition or fashion.
If a child amuses himself by shuffling around the parts of a sentence, a stockman by selecting a new variety of animal, or if I do so by speaking of crowd psychology as if it were a coherent science, we have three situations that introduce the possibility of change. If what the child, the stockman or I engage in produces a response that is copied and repeated, we immediately have a new form of language, a new species or a new stream of research. As we know, the typical rhythm of social life is extremely simple. First there are individual creations and then waves of imitation, and the cycle is endless.
Everything follows naturally from this. If imitation proceeds from invention, then every group and society proceeds from an individual multiplied many thousands or millions of times. As their name indicates, Christians copy Christ and Stalinists are facsimiles of Stalin. Similarity within a group could be seen as arising from the fact that the members of that group imitate the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of one of their number who is at once their spiritual model and effective leader. The extraordinary simplicity of the idea explains why it has been so successful. It is so easy once you have thought of it that it would be nice to have done so just once in a lifetime.
Why do we imitate? Why do we immediately rush to copy a person, an idea or a garment? Probably for two reasons: instinctive tendency and economy of effort or, to put it more crudely, reversion to ancestral type and idleness. The instinctive tendency corresponds to the fact that imitation is a universal means of repetition and expresses the biological impulse of every living thing to reproduce itself indefinitely. A consequence of it is the mimetic desire in all of us to behave like someone else, as a child wishes to be like his father, a sister like her brother, or a servant like his master. Repeating or seeing others repeating ideas, acts, words and so on that we find particularly pleasing gives us great satisfaction.
We also do as others do to save our energy and effort. There would be no point in discovering or inventing again for ourselves the things that others have already discovered or invented. Replying to one of his critics, Tarde said:
I may be reminded of the fact that although imitation is a social thing, the tendency to imitate in order to avoid the trouble of inventing, a tendency which is born of instinctive indolence, is an absolutely natural thing. But although this tendency may, of necessity, precede the first social act, the act whereby it is satisfied, yet its own strength and direction vary very much according to the nature of the existing habits of imitation. (Tarde, 1962: 50)
In other words, in each of us there slumbers a sheep-like creature who avoids the sufferings and risks of the inventor and so, at a smaller cost to himself, repeats an invention that has already claimed a great deal of someone else’s energy. It is not hard to imagine such docile creatures being led by anyone claiming to govern them. He hypnotises them, by means of his charisma amongst other things. Society itself is a hypnotic milieu, an area of images in which automatic behaviour can come into play, and it is bathed in the illusions that history has deposited in its memory. Tarde, summarising his own ideas on the subject, declared that:
The social like the hypnotic state is only a form of dream, a dream of command and a dream of action. Both the somnambulist and the social man are possessed by the illusion that their ideas, all of which have been suggested to them, are spontaneous. (Tarde, 1962: 77)
By means of this arresting comparison he reminds us that man is beyond a doubt a social animal, but only because (and when) he is open to suggestion. Conformity is the prime social quality and the very basis of suggestibility, bringing to light thoughts and feelings originating on a lower plane that waking consciousness knows nothing about. Both nature and the way society is organised encourage this conformity, which brings individuals together and plunges them into the dark world of dreams. They imitate like automata, obey like sleepwalkers and mingle in the great tide of humanity.
All this is said in one short sentence: ‘Society is imitation and imitation is a kind of somnambulism’ (Tarde, 1962: 87). I am aware how hard it is to reconcile all that, but cannot discuss it exhaustively. I hope instead that studying its consequences will help the reader to see more clearly how it all fits together.”