Viewing crowds as inherently volatile and regressive, Gustav Le Bon, in his still influential 1897 study, took a dim view of the crowd member: “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instinct” (Le Bon 1897: 12). Individuals in a crowd become subsumed into a “collective mind” (the modern term for this process is “de-individuation”). Stripped of cognition and personal responsibility, crowd members feel empowered, surrender to their animal instincts, and are unable to resist any stimuli they encounter, so that behavior spreads through the throng in a process Le Bon dubbed “contagion.”
All of this appears to be born out in Thucydides’ famous account of stasis at Corcyra (3.82-4). We see the empowerment of crowd membsership, the emergence of “group-think” as indviduals lose control of themselves in pursuit of group goals, the abandonment of moral norms, and the descent into savagery. Gabriel Herman has invoked this passage to show how de-individuation, as defined by modern psychology, can be traced in ancient accounts (Herman 2009: 26-8).
But closer inspection reveals problems with this analsysis. Thucydides’ factional partisans are not subsumed into a collective mind, nor do they succumb to anonymity or find themselves stripped of personal responsibility: far from it, they knowingly perform atrocities as individuals and then boast about them to their peer groups. For this, they are recognized as leaders of their groups. Likewise, there is no mindless “contagion,” but actions are carried out purposefully and held to be highly meaningful by the factions engaged in the stasis. Partisans are not “de-individuated” automatons lost in a crowd consciousness; they are highly cognizant of their individual deeds and act for reasons both they and their peers readily recognize and approve of.
Do we, then, conclude that ancient historians should eschew social psychology as essentially useless? No. It requires closer attention to trends in social psychological research. The more recent “social-identity” model of crowd dymanics takes a very different view than that offered by Le Bon. Crowds are a form of group. Groups are ubiquitous, and people’s expression of their group-defined social identities changes according to the group context – behavior differs between, say, a family dinner and meeting old friends at a bar. The expression of social identities is purposeful, highly meaningful, and validating. Far from becoming barbarians stripped of a sense of self, in crowds people find a vehicle for affirming and expressing who they think themselves to be. It is a positive experience.
Crowd members share an identity. The question becomes what shapes that identity? The answer varies widely by context, but in applying this approach to the Corcyraean stasis we find many points of contact that, in conclusion, confirms the value of social psychology in offering a deeper understanding of ancient collective action.
Cognitive Classics: New Theoretical Models for Approaching the Ancient World