Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 2 - Collectivities: Social Movements & Epidemics

“Suggestibility is the cement of the herd, the very soul of the primitive group …

Man is a social animal, no doubt, but he is social because he is suggestible. Society and mental epidemics are intimately related; for the gregarious self is the suggestible and subconscious self.”

Wilfred Trotter

It would be unimaginable for a book whose principle theme was human folly not to deal with folly en masse, since this accounts for such a large proportion of the whole. But why is it that humans can act foolishly in groups? Why indeed should they be influenced at all in this way?

Homo sapiens is unique among the primates in forming large, cohesive groups, and in the extent and variety of its collective responses. Large-group behaviour is common among animals that collect and move together in great numbers (as with shoals of fish, flocks of birds and herds of ungulates) but it is not at all typical of monkeys and apes, the primate group to which we belong. Although it is clearly an important aspect of our social being, since it is so universal, it is not clear at what stage in human evolution, or for what purpose, we acquired this 'herd instinct'. This capacity to relate and respond to large groups is, then, an entirely human characteristic - but it has its drawbacks. It is well known that people tend to act quite differently, and often in a far less rational way en masse, and that it is not always easy for the individual to resist being swayed by the emotions of the group. As with the movements of a schoal of fish there is something uncanny, almost telepathic, in the shifting moods and actions of an assembly, whether it consists of a relatively few or of a great mass. To some extent the group has a mind of its own. This may be may be reasonable, in its outlook, but it can also be completely irrational - either way there is a strong tendency for the individual to become integrated with it …

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Contents (in no particular order)

Dance, Dance, Dance

The Dancing Mania was one of the more peculiar ‘epidemics’ that periodically swept through Medieval Europe. This odd form of collective hysteria (which has echoes to this day) eventually became institutionalised, after a fashion.

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Sadness and Sorrow: Collective Grief

The death, at the very height of his popularity, of Rudolph Valentino, the Love-God of the Silent Screen, set off a near-hysterical reaction among his fans, leading to the worst riots in New York’s history. This reaction, of a mass outpouring of grief, is compared to that accompanying the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

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Great Fears

Epidemics of exaggerated fear or anxiety obviously derive from particular, local circumstances – they are, however, among the most common form of spontaneous mass movements. The classic example in the field was the ‘Great Fear of France’.

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Monsters and Moral Panics

When human beings begin to respond en masse their reactions are inclined to become more impulsive and less reasonable. Fear, and its projection onto others is a particularly contagious emotion and easily drives out more considered, rational responses.

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* Get Rich Quick

A passing examination of the impetuous fevers of financial speculation that break out from time to time – and their close relatives the Treasure Hunt and the Gold Rush.

* Shadows of the World’s End

In 1831, in New England, a tortured soul named William Miller began to prophesy the end of the world, causing widespread alarm. He was not of course the first to do so, and the world did not end when he said it would – but neither did his mission, in fact he attracted an even greater following. There is in fact a long history of End-of-the-World hysterical outbreaks, with many strange consequences for the True Believers involved.

* Despair and Deliverance

The resort to collective suicide is incomprehensible, almost unimaginable, for most ordinary people but, sadly, there have been many occasions throughout history where groups (of various different persuasions) have seen this drastic step as an obvious solution.

* ‘We Shall All Be Changed’

When a society is confronted with events beyond its comprehension, as with an individual, it can lose touch all sense of previous realities. This was why the impact of European colonialism had such a disastrous effect on long-established ‘native’ societies.