Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Koestler on Mob Psychology

Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation (Chapter 14, “On Islands and Waterways”), offers an interesting view of the psychology of individuals who become part of mass movements or mobs:
"The 'hypnotic effect’ of political demagogues has become a cliche, but one aspect of mass-psychology must be briefly mentioned. The type of crowd or mob to which Le Bon's classic descriptions still apply, is fanatical and 'single-minded' because the subtler individual differences between its members are temporarily suspended; the whole mass is thus intellectually adjusted to its lowest common denominator, but in terms of dynamic action it has a high efficacity, because the impulses of its members are aligned through narrow slits—or blinkers—all pointing in the same direction; hence their experience of being parts of an irresistible power. This experience of partness within a dynamic whole leads to a temporary suspension of individual responsibility which is replaced by unconditional subordination to the 'controlling centre’, the leader of the crowd. It further entails the temporary effacement of all self-assertive tendencies: the total surrender of the individual to the collectivity is manifested in altruistic, heroic, self-sacrificing acts—and at the same time in bestial cruelty towards the enemy or victim of the collective whole. This is a further example of the self-transcending emotions serving as catalysts or triggers for their opponents. But let us note that the brutality or heroism displayed by a fanaticized crowd is quasi-impersonal, and unselfish; it is exercised in the interest, or supposed interest, of the whole. The same S.S. detachments which mowed down the whole male population of Lidice were capable of dying at Oradur like the defenders of Thermopylae. The self-assertive behavior of a mass is based on the participatory behavior of the individual, which often entails sacrifice of his personal interest and even his life. Theories of ethics based on enlightened self-interest fail to provide an answer why a man should sacrifice his life in the defense of his family—not to mention country, liberty, beliefs. The fact that men have always been prepared to die for (good, bad, or futile) causes, proves that the self-transcending tendencies are as basic to his mental organization as the others. And since the individual cannot survive without some form of social integration, self-preservation itself always implies a component of self-transcendence." 
This means that every individual has collectivist feelings inside him. The self-transcending emotions are there in all human beings—and if they are sufficiently inspired they can choose to surrender their individuality to groups. The self-transcending emotions can be conscious or unconscious but they have the potential to assert themselves in the form of an altruistic social-behavior.

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