Psychology of Crowds: why rational discourse does not cross the minds?

In Tunisia and all over the world, populist personalities manage to reach power by borrowing an irrational discourse that uses emotions to the detriment of reason and takes the dramatization of the scenario to its extreme. [1]


This hypersensitivity to affection is accompanied by a rejection or even a more and more important cancellation of the rational discourse, which is accused of elitism and transcendence. What worries in this new trend, especially in our country, is that emotions do not generally bring consistent solutions, or at least, they bring false or distorted solutions to take advantage of it, politically afterwards.

But in fact, where does this affinity to the irrational come from? And why does Cartesianism fail or no longer succeed in panicking the masses?

We will try to dig up different grounds to better visualize the problem in its globality. From culturalism to sociology and social psychology to finally land on psychoanalysis, this modest essay is meant to be light and succinct in order to get us closer to understanding.

A supra-civilizational phenomenon?

This wave of populism is supra-civilizational, thus invalidating all cultural barriers.

Samuel Huntington in his book "The Clash of Civilizations" defends the thesis of a global cultural plurality. This theory, which began a new era in the breakdown of post-Cold War geopolitical relations, proposes a division of the world into eight distinct civilizations [2]: Western, Slavic-Orthodox, Islamic, African, Hindu, Confucian, Latin American and Japanese. Huntington assumes that these civilizations, given their linguistic, historical and religious peculiarities, will form the new basis for future international disagreements instead of the ideological wars of the past (between the USSR and the West from 1945 to 1991).

Despite their substantial differences, these civilizations meet in their ability to elect a populist political leader, and to mention just one, according to the order stated above, we can list: Donald Trump (United States), Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), Kais Said (Tunisia), Jerry Rawlings (Ghana)[3], Narendra Modi (India), Xi Jinping (China)[4], Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) (References have been added only for characters whose populist categorization is not universally known).

That said, the attractiveness of this irrational populist discourse manages to transcend cultural and civilizational background. It is not specific to a particular civilization, but on the contrary, it goes beyond it to excite societies independently of their beliefs, history and language. A worldwide phenomenon that leaves no land indifferent.

The decline of rationality, a social fact?

Since the end of the XIXth century, and the advent of sociology, a new current has been conceived to define a new relationship between individuals and society under a simple equation: society > the sum of individuals.

This approach, called holistic, postulates that there is a community phenomenon that organizes the life of all individuals, which Emile Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, named: the social fact.

The social fact, to make short, is for the social life, what is the gravitation for the matter. It conditions it.

Durkheim defines the social fact as being an external force to the individual consciences but which is endowed with a coercive power on them. To put it more simply, the social fact is when an individual is bound to have such a behavior in such a situation and to respect pre-established rules of convenience. For example, when a soccer fan, naturally shy and introvert, turns into a wild, agitated person in the crowd, insulting the opponent and breaking the seats in the stadium and throwing them at the police. In fact, this fan, in this state of mind, has been carried away and converted to a norm that he/she did not choose. A norm that is external to him/her but that exerts on him/her a kind of pressure of constraint.

The same situation faces the reason. Let me explain: with the recent technological development, a new norm - a new social fact - has been created to affirm that neither the elites nor their rhetoric are credible [5].

In the inventory, there is a predisposition to resistance imposed by society, facilitated by unpunished electronic lynching, spiced up by the echo chambers of social networks and their content that discredits any figure with academic or political capital. To be an elitist - to consider the elites as superior in knowledge and to defend being governed by them - has become an injury and an offence. Consequently, everything that is gathered around the orbit of elitism, namely rationality, science, logic, common sense, deduction, etc., has metamorphosed into invective. And since the crowd does not reason [6], does not question anything, it concedes to what is swallowed.

"Not very apt for reasoning, crowds are on the contrary very apt for action." [7]

This cult phrase by Gustave Le Bon in "Psychology of Crowds" summarizes the organic functioning of crowds. Le Bon considers the crowd as a compact entity, indissociable and irreducible to the individuals who compose it. It is governed by "the law of mental unity". It possesses characteristics, and here comes the most important part, and to quote only the main lines: impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, absence of judgment and critical spirit, exaggeration of feelings, suggestibility [8]. These characteristics depict that tendency of souls to adhere to facts without reasoning.

In short, crowds are impervious to logical reasoning, but they are very permeable to associations of ideas that we might consider primitive or implausible [9].

Nevertheless, Gustave Le Bon published his book at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the crowd was naturally a group of people physically present in the same place. Nowadays, with the advent of social networks, the ease with which individuals could communicate with each other and with the possibilities of discussions and interactivities in group-ghettos, these characteristics mentioned above have spread to also interest a set of people who are not necessarily in the same place. Crowds have evolved, they can now be physical and virtual, and as a result, now have a huge amplification potential.

This was noted in 2019, between the two rounds of the presidential election, and following the broadcast of the television channel Al Hiwar Ettounsi of a program during which were pronounced positions that affect the image of Kais Said, a mass boycott campaign was implemented which adhered to more than 900 thousand Facebook users [10]. Here we could see the impulsiveness and exaggeration of the crowd's feelings that were the result of a simple suggestion made by an administrator of a page supporting the candidate.

In medicine, we speak of an endemic when a contagious disease is spread in a certain area and of an epidemic when it is spread rapidly and brutally in several places at the same time.

Because of social networks, the soul of the crowd had acquired the ability to renew itself and expand perpetually while maintaining its characteristics. It went from being endemic -a crowd in the street- to being epidemic -a virtual crowd- with indeterminate boundaries. As a result, more and more people are abandoning the sphere of rationality.

What does Freud tell us?

We have just seen that the crowd has a considerable influence on the affinities of the individual. But is there already a congenital psychological predilection for irrational speech?

The answer to our question comes from Sigmund Freud. This psychoanalyst, who changed the course of history by introducing to humanity the notion of the unconscious, divides the personality of the individual into three entities: The Ego, the Superego and the id. [11]

The superego: it is the heir of the parental prohibitions and norms. It is also the descendant of the superego of our parents. It is the inner law that dictates what is good or bad. Severely, even cruelly, it judges, censures and punishes the ego in its alignment with the impulsive demands of the id.

The id: it is the place of impulses, notably of the libido (vital energy that encompasses our desires, our cravings, our life impulses. In a general way, it designates our concrete and imaginary sexual activity). The id ignores value judgments, morality, good or evil. Its functioning is governed by the pleasure principle. It pushes to enjoyment and defies the prohibitions.

The ego: it is a part of the id that has undergone a particular differentiation by being in contact with the external reality. It is the psychic authority to which the consciousness is attached and it is the one that communicates with the external world. Its role is to preserve the psychic balance of the subject by adapting to the constraints imposed by the id and the superego.

All psychologists agree on the fact that the unconscious part of the psychic apparatus is in the majority. Neuroscientists estimate that it occupies 90% of our mental activity [12].

If this unconscious entity is composed, according to Freud, of the superego and the id, this means that it incorporates the mystical, impulsive, automatic part of our personality. Consequently, its stimulation during a politician's speech for example - that is to say, the stimulation on the one hand, of the parental heritage, of the Laws we grew up with, of the societal judgments and on the other hand, of the pleasures and impulses buried - could in reality only be welcomed with open arms.

In contrast, the rational discourse that excites only one tenth of our psyche, it really targets only a derisory part of it. Too weak to be savored and to succeed in crossing our mind.



This aversion of what can be categorized as rational has its origins in several factors. The social facts put in place, the influence of the crowd on decision making, the social networks that come to affirm the preconceived ideas of the individuals to make them a reality and the natural psychological composition of human beings, all these elements coexist to help us to identify the reasons behind this impotence of rationality.


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[1] https://journals.openedition.org/mots/20534

[2] https://www.cairn.info/magazine-sciences-humaines-2010-1-page-16.htm

[3] https://polaf.hypotheses.org/files/2013/04/008008.pdf

[4] https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/18429/Xi%20Jinping-%20Communist%20China%e2%80%99s%20first%20populist%20president.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

[5] https://institutdelors.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/socialnetworksandpopulism-dittrich-jdib-april17-2.pdf p 5

[6 - 9] Le Bon, Gustave (1895) : La psychologie de la foule

[10] https://www.webdo.tn/2019/09/18/elhiwar-ettounsi-visee-par-une-campagne-de-boycott/

[11] https://www.psychologue-montpellier34.fr/2018/01/02/psy-actualit%C3%A9s-moi-%C3%A7a-et-surmoi/

[12] https://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2013/08/22/le-cerveau-et-ses-automatismes_3461861_3246.html#:~:text=Conscience%20ou%20inconscience%20ont%2C%20toutes,%C3%A0%20des%20processus%20forts%20diff%C3%A9rents.&text=Selon%20les%20auteurs%20du%20documentaire,le%20dessus%20sur%20la%20raison

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