The Mass Mind


by Ely Culbertson


…. In the notes below, I shall outline some of my concepts of the psychology of the mass mind which may prove to be of interest to those who have dealings with the masses. I will make no attempt here to present a complete picture. This tremendously complicated subject requires a book, which I hope to write someday.

Early in my youth, as a revolutionist I ran up against the blank wall of the mystery of the mass mind. I then realized that one may have the noblest and the most practical ideals [for] levers [to] move the masses; that propaganda is often more powerful than the truth. All around me I saw political charlatans and demagogues drench the people with lies and the spit of hatred and yet carry them off their feet; while my teachers floundered, although they understood the truth and were sincere. I rushed to libraries to find out about this wonderful science of influencing people. But there was very little information.

The practical application of the knowledge of the mass mind, which is based on crude trial and-error methods, has been known since earliest times. The structure of armies and churches is unconsciously based on these little-known laws; the Communists and Fascists have perfected the methods; and the American advertising industry has brought in a wealth of practical discoveries. But even today, there are no scientific definitions or acceptable theories on the anatomy of the mass mind, how it behaves, and why.

The Individual and the Crowd

It is already known that there is a certain difference between a person taken singly and the same person taken as part of a crowd. Actually, the difference is tremendous. A crowd is something very much more than the sum total of the individuals that comprise it. It is a new entity, personality, possessing its own emotional and thinking organs.

I define a crowd as consisting of five or more individuals. One of these individuals is always the leader. The moment several individuals get together to form a crowd, a number of their usual emotional reactions become atrophied, while other emotional reactions, theretofore dormant, become intensified. In a crowd, the individual loses most of his initiative; his fears and doubts are dissipated, and his reasoning faculties are narrowed down to one or two simple issues; he acquires new emotions of a religious or mystic nature; he feels a compelling sense of communal responsibility and a confidence that borders on omnipotence. Under the spell of the crowd emanations, he is capable of acts of supreme heroism or of dastardly cowardice – acts which he might not perform as an individual. Thus, a crowd is always composed of demigods who are at the same time savage beasts; of heroes who are simultaneously cruel cowards.

The basic fact from which all study of the mass mind must start, is this; every crowd possesses its own anatomy, its own brain, and its own nervous system, as distinct from the psychology of the individuals who comprise it.

This mass mind operates not only when people are gathered together in physical crowds – in auditoriums or on street corners – but continuously. Every individual is endowed, from time immemorial, with a number of instincts that make him a part of the herd and subject to reactions of the herd. He is dominated by crowd influences and crowd emotions wherever he is – whether he talks to other people, listens to the radio, or reads a newspaper in front of his own fireplace. Besides, in the course of the day most individuals are at some time or other in contact with different physical crowds, where they easily pick up the highly contagious germs of crowd emotions.

Thus, the mass mind functions even when there is not a physical crowd, except that then its emotions are not so intense and its psychological reactions do not occur so rapidly.

All the observations in this appendix, therefore, apply not only to physical crowds, but to all individuals who have social contact with the world around them.

The Structure of the Crowd or Mass Mind

If the crowd does have a mind of its own, just what is its structure, and how does it operate?

The crowd is made up of two elements: the mass and the leaders. Its structure is somewhat analogous to that of a cell, with its protoplasm and nucleus. The mass element in the crowd is nameless and passive, its essential function is to provide “nourishment” for the active principle, which is the nucleus. The crowd’s nucleus is composed of the crowd’s leaders, in whom practically the entire activity of the crowd is concentrated. And here the analogy between a cell and a crowd ceases. For a crowd is not comparable to one gigantic cell, but is actually made up of a great number of units, or crowd-cells. Each of these crowd-cells consists of five, six, or seven individuals, and each has its group leader. Thoughts and emotions are communicated from one unit or crowd cell to another through these group leaders, who act in the double capacity of transmitters and initiators of action.

The important point is that, of the individuals who make up a crowd-cell, only the leader is active; the others, so to speak, have delegated to him not only most of their authority, but a great part of their emotional and intellectual mechanisms. They leave to their leader the task of making decisions, and even the emotional function of becoming cruel or loving, heroic or cowardly. This process of delegation is, in my opinion, one of the underlying principles in the structure of the crowd. The group leader stands at the front of the stage, and his six or seven followers stand in the background, imitating his every gesture, thought, or emotion. It is the group leader who organizes a bridge game, selects a brand of cigarettes, decides that Roosevelt is a hero or a monster, throws rice and old shoes at the newlyweds, or lynches ….. He counts; his followers are but shadows in his image.

The Leaders

The group leaders in turn are organized into special leader-cells, each of which is controlled by a higher leader. Finally, there is a still higher leader-cell, composed of leaders of the leaders, and controlled by the supreme leader. At each intermediate stage the lower group of leaders transmits a large part of its authority and will to the higher leaders.

Thus, the structure of a crowd can be compared to a skyscraper built like a pyramid: its skeleton of steel is the leadership factor, its backbone and brain; the bricks that fill in this framework to complete the building make up the passive element, or the mass of the crowd. The higher “stories” of this tapering skyscraper are made up entirely of the higher leaders, where most of the power is concentrated; while the foundation is cemented and held together by the group leaders incrustated within the mass.

These leaders are always potentially present in any crowd. They spring up from the mass spontaneously. In a theater someone shouts, “Fire!” There are a few seconds of hesitation, during which the leaders crystalize. If the leaders are panicky, the crowd is panicky; if the leaders walk calmly to the nearest exit, so does the crowd. It may happen that the struggle of opposing leaders neutralizes the action of the crowd, leaving it temporarily leaderless; then there is a stampede.

This leadership structure is the characteristic organ of any crowd – its brain, its nervous and muscular systems, all in one. It is common to masses, crowds, and even herds of animals. These leaders are to be found among males and females, and in every conceivable human activity. Their presence, and not the so-called “tribal inheritance,” is the true explanation for the transmission of innumerable customs, traditions, and learned aptitudes of society.

The structure of a crowd of one hundred people is exactly the same as that of one hundred thousand; and its dynamics are the same, whether it be a crowd of Chinese, Russians, or Americans, and whether it be a crowd of delegates to the Republican convention or a lynching mob. The same laws apply to all crowds or masses of people, and most of these laws deal with the leadership factor. The essential difference, for instance, between a mob and an army does not lie in the structure, but in the difference between trained and spontaneous leadership. The army has discipline; that is, the leaders have been trained how to command, and the masses, how to obey. Thus, discipline merely intensifies the leadership principle in the structure of the mass mind.

The Mass

In a crowd, the mass never acts of its own volition, never takes any initiative, never attacks or runs. I am not attempting a paradox when I say that for all practical purposes of initiative or action, the mass does not exist!

The mass, however, does have one basic function, other than serving as “roughage”: it furnishes the raw material from which the leaders are produced.

The number and quality of the leaders, however, depends upon the mood, the climate of the mass. For want of a better word, I use the word “climate” to indicate the combination of physical, economic, and psychological conditions which influence the mass. It is this mass-climate which determines whether the mass accelerates or retards the formation and the acceptance of leaders. If the mass-climate is favorable to a movement, then the mass easily produces new leaders and the movement is accelerated. But if the climate is unfavorable, then the mass forms but few leaders, or forms leaders who are in opposition to the movement; as a result, the movement is either retarded or stopped…..

These two basic principles of leadership and mass apply not only to the psychology of crowds, but also to the structure of societies, as well as to the dynamics of social movements – be they wars, migrations, or an advertising campaign to launch a new kind of soap. In the preceding pages I have tried to explain a little of the theoretical background of the structure of the mass mind. These theories are of great practical value when applied to the technique of advertising, publicity, showmanship, and general mass appeal…..

…..There is another fallacy, caused by ignorance of the structure of the mass mind, which is costing the motion-picture industry alone many millions of dollars and which explains some of the monstrosities which they produce. It is the belief that the average intelligence of the masses is that of a twelve-year-old. Taken individually this may be true. But taken as a level at which to produce movies, it is a serious mistake, for every individual who sees a movie is part of a crowd. And the intelligence level of every crowd is that of its group leaders. If the intelligence level of the group leaders equals that of a college graduate, then the intelligence of the crowd, for all practical purposes, equals the college graduate; if, on the other hand, the intelligence level of the crowd’s group leaders is that of a twelve-year-old (which is relatively rare), then even a crowd of senators would be on the same level (and sometimes is). The important fact about any crowd is that the level of the group leaders’ intelligence is usually several notches higher that the average of the individuals which comprise the crowd. Here I am sharply at variance with Le Bon and modern students of the crowd, who believe that a crowd is per se stupid, cruel, and cowardly, and is of lower mentality than the individuals comprising it.

The group and higher leaders are the censors and sentinels of the masses. It is at them advertising and motion pictures should be aimed…..

Intellectually, it is quite possible to fool most of the people most of the time, and they are being so fooled continuously through various political doctrines and war propaganda, for instance; emotionally, however, it is much more difficult to fool the crowds. For a crowd, like a woman, follows intellectual arguments only superficially; all its attention is concentrated on feeling whether or not the speaker is sincere…..

Dictatorship and Democracy

….. A democracy – even at its worst, with the waste, stupid greed, and sloppiness we see in our country today – offers the best chances for initiative and fruitful struggle among rival groups of leaders in every walk of life. Its very instability and apparent disorganization insure the indispensable freedom for the maximum application of initiative and the correction of errors. And whatever a democracy may lose temporarily through less efficiency, it more than regains through greater initiative and freedom. The best safeguard of democracy is to be found in the education of both the masses and the leaders, so as to favor the maximum development of superior and freely competing leaders in all walks of life…..

There is also the principle of velocity in social movements; it results from the physical factor of tremendously increased facilities for communication and transportation. The masses are subject to thousands of influences from all sides, through radio, motion pictures, newspapers, books, automobiles; the mass-climate can be changed in the course of months or years, instead of generations. Group leaders are produced more quickly, and movements spread at terrific speed… The greater the velocity of social movements, the greater the instability and strife in the world. It follows that we are entering upon an era of great wars and revolutions, when classes and nations will be reshuffled, and the earth divided anew. Peace will come, perhaps several generations later, with the progress of science and the development of a system whereby the new leaders of the world will be technicians, specialists, and philosophers.

[From The Strange Lives of One Man, by Ely Culbertson, 1940.]


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