In 1841, Scottish writer Charles Mackay wrote a bestseller titled Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
Mackay’s account of mass crowd delusion focused on three infamous (if non-violent) financial manias of the time — John Law’s Mississippi Scheme, the South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania, each of which spread in all directions and duped thousands of gullible investors.
Mackay’s central thesis was that being well-educated, intelligent and sensible is no defence against the mesmerizing appeal of a popular craze that has “the wind of something I want to believe” behind it.
In the view of his biographers, Mackay proved himself a master chronicler of mass aberrations in both the social and financial history of the credulous, who were only too willing to deny that they were caught up in a miasma of misinformation.
Given that Mackay’s thesis still applies to the madness of anti-vaxxing, anti-masking and ignoring social distancing in a time when a lethal disease can be spread by any and all of the above, it is no surprise that his book still sells today on Amazon, Kindle and Audiobook.
One hundred and eighty years later, it is still regarded as a record of large-scale naiveté.
As one contemporary reviewer writes online: “The book recalls the plight of some of the unfortunates on these pages, and [how to] avoid getting dragged under the wheels of the careering bandwagon yourself.”
Michael Gearon, writing about crowd psychology today, describes “the bandwagon effect” as what occurs “when people do, believe or say something because they see other people are doing it (so it must be right), despite the fact that it might not line up with their own original beliefs, which they tend to ignore.”
Gearon points out that the bandwagon effect is gaining ground in today’s world of daily uncurated and unedited social media influence and sometimes intentional misinformation.
He quotes early 17th-century English philosopher, statesman and essayist Francis Bacon as writing that “the human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”
Mackay, who wrote about mob behaviour, would not have been amazed at the behaviour and everyday madness of today’s crowds, which sometimes become mobs at the drop of a placard or the slightest frustration or provocation.
Many retailers — Walmart is one example — hold “doorbuster” Black Friday sales offering deep discounts on a limited number of TVs, iPods, DVD players, and other coveted products. People sometimes begin lining up the night before and will camp out on the sidewalk all night for a chance to buy a discounted TV and “save” maybe $150.
Sometimes fights break out. In 2011, the New Yorker ran a piece by writer John Seabrook called Crush Point, which asked: “When large crowds assemble, is there a way to keep them safe?”
Seabrook described an incident in 2008 when an early-shopper crowd crush at a Walmart resulted in the deaths of several people. The crowd, which had waited in line since the night before, became violently agitated for reasons that are barely believable.
Seabrook describes how the mayhem began: “As more people gathered, in anticipation of the store’s opening, at 5 a.m., the pressure on the doors built and they began to shake. ‘Push the doors in!’ some chanted from the back.”
Soccer games, rock concerts and even political rallies where speakers incite mob violence all qualify as potential contemporary “mad crowd” tragedies.
In 1895, there was another scholarly effort to understand mob mentality: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave Le Bon.
Le Bon, a French intellectual and writer, was clearly repulsed by the 1848 Paris rebellion, as justified as it may have been, and described “the howling, swarming, ragged crowd” at the centre of the uprising.
Ever since, and especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, mob violence in Washington D.C., social scientists have sought to understand the dynamics of humans en masse.
Their research identified a new kind of violent mass movement in the case of Jan. 6, when more “normal” Trump supporters — middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right — joined with extremists in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.
As Charles Mackay wrote in 1841: “Men it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.
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