Harold Walsby: The Masses and Emotional Suggestibility

Having made out a more or less prima facie case for the possibility of the connection between political outlook and vertical growth of intellect, we shall now proceed to follow up the suggestion and turn our attention to a very general survey, or bird’s-eye view, of those aspects of intellectualism and its development which relate particularly to our original scale of political opinion (Fig. 1).

In this scale we noted a whole series of political outlooks as they relate to, and are identified with, two basic forms of the economic structure of society, i.e., (1), economic individualism (private ownership and control of means of production) and (2), economic collectivism (common ownership and control of means of production). We also noticed that the extreme ends of the scale (the apex and the base) represent the more purist types of outlook; that is to say, they represent those outlooks which (a), tend to lay great stress on, or identify themselves wholly with, one or the other of the two basic economic forms and (b), tend to ignore or wholly reject the economic form complementary to that with which they are identified.

Again, we noted that the middle sections of opinion (some of which call themselves and are known as “moderate”) represent modifications of, or compromises between, these two extremes. We saw too that from the available evidence up to the present time, a larger number of people tend to support the lower extreme (economic individualism) than any other level, and that the numerical support for the various levels progressively diminishes as we ascend from the lower extreme to the upper (economic collectivism).

Let us begin our broad survey of the political aspects of intellectualism by examining and comparing the most general intellectual characteristics of these various levels. We will start with the lowest and most numerous level: the masses.

If we consider almost any large gathering of people, especially of the casual or more unorganised kind – such as the kind which congregates in the street, in the cinema, or at a football match – or, again, if we take an equally large but dispersed number of people at complete random, then it will follow, from what has been said above regarding the numerical representation of the different levels, that on the whole, in such groups, people who occupy the lowest level will largely preponderate. On an average – and assuming those of the higher levels go to the cinema, football matches, dog-racing etc., as frequently as do those of the lower levels, which, to say the least, is doubtful – such large gatherings of people will exhibit a political structure similar to, or approximating, that of our scale. (If there is any difference it is most likely to be an increase in the numerical proportion of the lower levels.)

Now, random or casual groups and crowds of this unorganised kind have been made the subject of study by eminent psychologists and other students and writers.

What strikes one forcibly when reading and comparing the results of their inquiries is the fact that all, almost without exception, place great stress on these two dominating and complementary characteristics of such groups: (a), the patent lack of intellectuality and (b), the high degree of mass emotional suggestibility or contagion of feeling.

For instance, Gustave Le Bon, in his well-known book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, emphasises the “extreme mental inferiority of crowds” and states that they are given to great emotionalism, suggestibility, and the inability to reason or to adopt an objective, rational, independent attitude. The average crowd, maintains Le Bon, is pre-eminently destructive and negative in character; it, worships the aggressive strong man, the dictator, and abases itself before him.

Again, in his interesting and more scientific study, The Group Mind, William McDougall says much the same thing. The unorganised type of group is “excessively emotional, impulsive, violent, fickle, inconsistent, irresolute and extreme in action, displaying only the coarser emotions and the less refined sentiments; extremely suggestible, careless in deliberation, hasty in judgment, incapable of any but the simpler and imperfect forms of reasoning; easily swayed and led, lacking in self-consciousness, devoid of self-respect and of sense of responsibility; and apt to be carried away by the consciousness of its own force, so that it tends to produce all the manifestations we have learnt to expect of any irresponsible and absolute power. Hence its behaviour is like that of any unruly child or an untutored passionate savage in a strange situation… ”

Freud, in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, affirms, “Thus the group appears to us as a revival of the primal horde. Just as primitive man virtually survives in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random crowd; in so far as men are habitually under the sway of group formation we recognise in it the survival of the primal horde. We must conclude that the psychology of the group is the oldest psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete.”

In this excellent and original study Freud refers extensively to the work of Le Bon and that of McDougall and quotes them with approval at some length: “‘… the individual forming part of a group acquires solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone he would perforce have kept under restraint. He will be the less disposed to check himself from the consideration that, a group being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely… ‘” (quoting Le Bon).

Still referring to Le Bon, Freud continues:

Inclined as it is to all extremes, a group can only be excited by an excessive stimulus. Anyone who wishes to produce an effect upon it needs no logical adjustment in his arguments: he must paint in the most forcible colours, he must exaggerate, and he must repeat the same thing again and again…

Since a group is in no doubt as to what constitutes truth or error, and is conscious, moreover, of its own great strength, it is as intolerant as it is obedient to authority. It respects force and can only be slightly influenced by kindness, which it regards merely as a form of weakness. What it demands of its heroes is strength, or even violence. It wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its masters. Fundamentally it is entirely conservative, and it has a deep aversion from all innovations and advances and an unbounded respect for tradition…

Some other features in Le Bon’s description show in a clear light how well justified is the identification of the group mind with the mind of primitive people. In groups the most contradictory ideas can exist side by side and tolerate each other, without any conflict arising from the logical contradiction between them. But this is also the case in the unconscious mental life of individuals, of children and of neurotics, as psychoanalysis has long pointed out…

The manner in which individuals are thus carried away by a common impulse is explained by McDougall by means of what he calls the ‘principle of direct induction of emotion by way of the primitive sympathetic response’ (p. 25), that is, by means of the emotional contagion with which we are all familiar. The fact is that the perception of the signs of an emotional state is calculated automatically to arouse the same emotion in the person who perceives them. The greater the number of people in whom the same emotion can be simultaneously observed, the stronger does this automatic compulsion grow. The individual loses his power of criticism, and lets himself slip into the same emotion. But in so doing he increases the excitement of the other people, who had produced this effect upon him; and thus the emotional charge of the individuals becomes intensified by mutual interaction. Something is unmistakably at work in the nature of a compulsion to do the same thing as the others, to remain in harmony with the many. The coarser and simpler emotions are the more apt to spread through a group in this way…

A group impresses the individual with a sense of unlimited power and of insurmountable peril. For the moment it replaces the whole of human society, which is the wielder of authority, whose punishments the individual fears, and for whose sake he has submitted to so many inhibitions. It is clearly perilous for him to put himself in opposition to it, and it will be safer to follow the example of those around him and perhaps even ‘hunt with the pack’…

Le Bon traces back all the puzzling features of social phenomena to two factors: the mutual suggestion of individuals and the prestige of leaders. But prestige, again, is only recognisable by its capacity for evoking suggestion. McDougall for a moment gives an impression that his principle of ‘primitive induction of emotion’ might enable us to do without the assumption of suggestion. But on further consideration we are forced to perceive that this principle says no more than the familiar assertions about ‘imitation’ or ‘contagion,’ except for a decided stress on the emotional factor. There is no doubt that something exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion…

I have quoted Freud extensively in his references to Le Bon and McDougall in order to show how unanimous all these writers are in ascribing to the unorganised group, or crowd, a general lack of independent, rational objectivity, on the one hand, and the presence of a large degree of mass or collective emotional suggestibility, on the other.

As a further illustration of these characteristics of random groups we will turn to the work of just one more psychologist, that of Serge Chakotin, pupil of the Russian scientist Pavlov.

In his important study of the psychology of totalitarian political propaganda, The Rape of the Masses, Chakotin, in a chapter headed “Collective Psychology,” writes:

A thing that is very characteristic of the crowd, and also, as we shall see, of the masses, is the preponderance of any emotional over any intellectual appeal.” In the same chapter he distinguishes between crowds and masses: “We have, then, to distinguish between the notions of masses and crowd. A crowd is always a mass, but a mass of individuals is not necessarily a crowd. The mass is generally dispersed; its individuals are not in touch with one another, and psychologically this is an important distinction. In spite of this, there is a bond between the elements of a mass – a certain homogeneity in psychical structure, resulting from close similarity of interests environment, education, nationality, work, and so on. In practice the masses have to be dealt with today more often than the crowd.

Although Chakotin disagrees with the extremism of Le Bon’s characterisation of the crowd he nevertheless refers to “the essential reactions of crowds, which, as we have already mentioned, are characterised by Le Bon as resulting from excited sensibilities and from psychical contagion.” He goes on: “It is true that a crowd can be aroused to fury and to readiness for violence, and also to delirious enthusiasm; it is true that it is capable of incredible cowardice or sublime heroism. But it is characteristic of it that it acts only under leadership, only when there are protagonists who manipulate it, “soul engineers.” Le Bon himself says that “without a leader the crowd is an amorphous being, incapable of action.”

The phenomena of lynching might be quoted: it is often sufficient for a single man to make an unconsidered gesture; the contagion will spread to the rest, who will commit any atrocity.

Referring to the phenomenon of suggestion Chakotin says:

The question of suggestion, especially through the “spoken word, or through any symbol, plays an important part here… If we analyse the possibilities of resistance to suggestion – a question, as we shall see, which is of the utmost importance – we find that, apart from pathological cases of congenital inadequacy or sickness or poisoning, these possibilities are largely all function of the degree of culture… which makes up the psychical mechanism of the individuals concerned. Ignorance is thus the best medium for the formation of masses who easily lend themselves to suggestion. This is a capital fact in the domain of politics and the social order… It is often said that consciousness varies inversely with susceptibility to suggestion.

In his book Chakotin relates how an attempt was made, in pre-Nazi Germany, to introduce revolutionary new methods – based on the study of the psychology of groups – into Left-wing and anti-fascist propaganda. The attempt failed, but not because of the ineffectiveness of the new methods. In fact the methods themselves were highly successful; indeed, they were largely the same as the highly successful and new methods of propaganda which were being used by Hitler and his National Socialists, and which played so great a part in promoting the rapid rise of the Nazis to power. The attempt failed because the methods were rejected by the Left-wing leaders, whose doctrinaire attitude branded the new ideas as trifling, unworthy and “dangerous” “… they felt certain objections of principle; they had no great opinion of psychology or of any science of politics.” We shall return to this, more fully, later.

Chakotin, for the purposes of conducting propaganda, broadly divides communities into two classes: (1), those who are largely immune to suggestion but who are receptive to theoretical, rational, persuasive arguments and to doctrine; (2), those who are passive, non-intellectual, unobjective or subjective, and greatly susceptible to emotion and suggestion. The relative numerical proportions of these two classes are as 1 to 10 respectively: that is to say, 10 percent are active and thinking, 90 percent passive and emotional. He bases these conclusions partly on an experiment carried out (with anti-fascist propaganda) during election campaigns in Offenbach, Darmstadt, Mainz, Worms, Giessen and Heidelberg in 1932 – an experiment which “was conducted with the rigour of laboratory practice.”

We should note, in passing, that Chakotin makes no distinction between vertical and horizontal intellectual development. Hence his 10 percent of active “militants” and thinking people, who resist suggestion, includes an element which, upon our more differentiated analysis, could not be classed as intellectual in the qualitative or vertical sense. This element would embrace both fascist and Right-wing “intellectuals” – i.e., people of low vertical development but who have a comparatively wide horizontal growth – and many of the so-called “educated” people; again, not all “active” and “militant” people are objective, rational or intellectual. This is borne out by Chakotin’s references to the followers of the Right-wing and particularly his references to the fact that the Nazis themselves distinguished between the active minority and the passive mass.

What, then, were the methods of influencing the masses? As we have said, there are two categories of persons; consequently two forms of propaganda were needed, one addressed to the 10 per cent., who are sufficiently sure of themselves to be able to resist crude suggestion, and the other to the passive 90 per cent., who are accessible to suggestion, especially suggestion working on the basis of the first (combative) instinct. This suggestion works by actual menace from time to time, as an absolute factor, and in the interim by the mass dissemination of symbols’ which recall the menace and thus act as a conditional factor…These two forms of propaganda, addressed to these two groups of persons, thus differed in principle. The first acted by persuasion, by reasoning; the second by suggestion, by means of fear, now of its positive complement, enthusiasm or excitement, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes furious; these reactions also proceeded from the combative instinct. We call the first of these two forms of propaganda ratio-propaganda and the second senso-propaganda. The first is simply political instruction, and needs no lengthy explanation; it is, moreover, the propaganda normally employed by political parties, especially in democratic countries.” (pp. 168-9)

And again:

What is the rational content of propaganda? In the last resort, propaganda has to make use of the psychical levers of which we have spoken in order to influence the passive nine-tenths of mankind, but this has to be done by the remaining tenth, the militants, the thinking and reasoning persons who are immune to emotional propaganda; a rational propaganda is thus also necessary. (Far be it from us to suggest, indeed, that propaganda of. any sort can usefully be carried on with no idea behind it, merely an appropriate technique.) The “10 percent” must be enlightened and guided by some idea… (p. 263)

Chakotin also relates several historical examples of the irrational behaviour typical of crowds as, for instance, the one concerning the invasion by the mob – “filled with hatred of the king” – of the royal palace at Versailles on June 20, 1792. “Yet when the frightened king appeared on the balcony of the palace wearing this bonnet rouge, (the red cloth cap of the revolutionary Sansculottes) the crowd at once forgot all else and went into ecstasies at the sight, acclaiming the king with shouts of ‘Vive le Roi’!”

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and Intellectualism | The Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index