Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 2 - Collectivities: Social Movements & Epidemics


It would be unimaginable for a collection whose principle themes were 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 reasonable in its outloo, but it can also be completely irrational - either way there is a strong tendency for the individual to become integrated with it.

In the more excited manifestations of collective activity the group involved (on whatever scale) tends to become preoccupied with itself and its ruling images and to become more or less oblivious of the world beyond. There are parallels here with the way that a hypnotised subject becomes withdrawn from his surroundings and entirely focused on the hypnotist and his promptings. The sort of blurring of personal boundaries that occurs in this situation, as well as rendering the individual or the crowd to suggestion, serves to loosen conventional restraint so that those involved may act in quite untypical and unrestrained ways. This response is easily exploited. As every demagogue instinctively knows it is far easier to manipulate a crowd than it is to influence the separate individuals of which it is composed.

It is not always necessarily the case however that this response be evoked from above. Quite as often, it would seem that the collective mind forms a will of its own. The 'contagious' spread of fashions and crazes are among the more common and innocuous manifestations of this tendency, just as panic and mass hysteria are the more frightening and potentially destructive. All in all no influence is more likely to sway our intentions as individuals than the pressure of the group mind, and it might be said that none is less noticed at the time, nor understood in retrospect. As history has repeatedly shown, objectivity and rationality, or even the selfish pursuit of one's own best interests, are little defence against a collective drive. Group attitudes generally are more potent than those of the individual; individual deviancy can be socially disruptive, but deviancy that affects an entire community can be (and usually is) far more ruinous.

To generalise then, collective behaviour, particularly of the kind that we are concerned with here (spontaneous mass-movements, hysterical 'contagions' and enthusiasms) relies on a level of collective suggestibility, a factor that is always present, but which tends to be heightened at times of tension. Gossip and rumour are important in transmitting an infectious mood, which may then result in some unusual, or even hysterical, activity. Such events are invariably accompanied by a degree of suspension, or detachment, from ordinary life. Movements of this kind can take many forms, depending on which primary emotion is brought to the fore (although these may change in the course of events). The prevailing mood can be marked by such basic emotions as hostility, sorrow or greed; they might be driven by religious, revolutionary or military fervour - but epidemics of exaggerated fear are the most common of all.

There is a certain commonality in the earlier stages of agitated mass movements of all kinds. The particular circumstances are obviously important in determining their initial character, but once set in train events frequently create a momentum of their own. La Grand Peur (The Great Fear), which took place in France during the early Revolutionary period, offers a textbook example of the sort of circular, generative anxiety that can break out when an emotional environment is particularly vulnerable to suggestion. At such times rumours can arise almost from nowhere and spread like wildfire, carrying fear with them.

Needs finishing off