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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. 1922.

Chapter III. Other Accounts of Collective Mental Life

WE have made use of Le Bon’s description by way of introduction, because it fits in so well with our own Psychology in the emphasis which it lays upon unconscious mental life. But we must now add that as a matter of fact none of that author’s statements bring forward anything new. Everything that he says to the detriment and depreciation of the manifestations of the group mind had already been said by others before him with equal distinctness and equal hostility, and has been repeated in unison by thinkers, statesmen and writers since the earliest periods of literature. The two theses which comprise the most important of Le Bon’s opinions, those touching upon the collective inhibition of intellectual functioning and the heightening of affectivity in groups, had been formulated shortly before by Sighele. At bottom, all that is left over as being peculiar to Le Bon are the two notions of the unconscious and of the comparison with the mental life of primitive people, and even these had naturally often been alluded to before him.

But, what is more, the description and estimate of the group mind as they have been given by Le Bon and the rest have not by any means been left undisputed. There is no doubt that all the phenomena of the group mind which have just been mentioned have been correctly observed, but it is also possible to distinguish other manifestations of the group formation, which operate in a precisely opposite sense, and from which a much higher opinion of the group mind must necessarily follow.

Le Bon himself was prepared to admit that in certain circumstances the morals of a group can be higher than those of the individuals that compose it, and that only collectivities are capable of a high degree of unselfishness and devotion. ‘While with isolated individuals personal interest is almost the only motive force, with groups it is very rarely prominent.’ (p. 65.) Other writers adduce the fact that it is only society which prescribes any ethical standards at all for the individual, while he as a rule fails in one way or another to come up to its high demands. Or they point out that in exceptional circumstances there may arise in communities the phenomenon of enthusiasm, which has made the most splendid group achievements possible.

As regards intellectual work it remains a fact, indeed, that great decisions in the realm of thought and momentous discoveries and solutions of problems are only possible to an individual, working in solitude. But even the group mind is capable of genius, in intellectual creation, as is shown above all by language itself, as well as by folk-song, folk-lore and the like. It remains an open question, moreover, how much the individual thinker or writer owes to the stimulation of the group in which he lives, or whether he does more than perfect a mental work in which the others have had a simultaneous share.

In face of these completely contradictory accounts, it looks as though the work of Group Psychology were bound to come to an ineffectual end. But it is easy to find a more hopeful escape from the dilemma. A number of very different formations have probably been merged under the term ‘group’ and may require to be distinguished. The assertions of Sighele, Le Bon and the rest relate to groups of a short-lived character, which some passing interest has hastily agglomerated out of various sorts of individuals. The characteristics of revolutionary groups, and especially those of the great French Revolution, have unmistakably influenced their descriptions. The opposite opinions owe their origin to the consideration of those stable groups or associations in which mankind pass their lives, and which are embodied in the institutions of society. Groups of the first kind stand in the same sort of relation to those of the second as a high but choppy sea to a ground swell.

McDougall, in his book on The Group Mind, starts out from the same contradiction that has just been mentioned, and finds a solution for it in the factor of organisation. In the simplest case, he says, the ‘group’ possesses no organisation at all or one scarcely deserving the name. He describes a group of this kind as a ‘crowd’. But he admits that a crowd of human beings can hardly come together without possessing at all events the rudiments of an organisation, and that precisely in these simple groups many of the fundamental facts of Collective Psychology can be observed with special ease (p. 22). Before the members of a random crowd of people can constitute something in the nature of a group in the psychological sense of the word, a condition has to be fulfilled; these individuals must have something in common with one another, a common interest in an object, a similar emotional bias in some situation or other, and (‘consequently’, I should like to interpolate) ‘some degree of reciprocal influence’ (p. 23). The higher the degree of ‘this mental homogeneity’, the more readily do the individuals form a psychological group, and the more striking are the manifestations of a group mind.

The most remarkable and also the most important result of the formation of a group is the ‘exaltation or intensification of emotion’ produced in every member of it (p. 24). In McDougall’s opinion men’s emotions are stirred in a group to a pitch that they seldom or never attain under other conditions; and it is a pleasurable experience for those who are concerned to surrender themselves so unreservedly to their passions and thus to become merged in the group and to lose the sense of the limits of their individuality. 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 already 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 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 (p. 39).

This mechanism for the intensification of emotion is favoured by some other influences which emanate from groups. 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’. In obedience to the new authority he may put his former ‘conscience’ out of action, and so surrender to the attraction of the increased pleasure that is certainly obtained from the removal of inhibitions. On the whole, therefore, it is not so remarkable that we should see an individual in a group doing or approving things which he would have avoided in the normal conditions of life; and in this way we may even hope to clear up a little of the mystery which is so often covered by the enigmatic word ‘suggestion’.

McDougall does not dispute the thesis as to the collective inhibition of intelligence in groups (p. 41). He says that the minds of lower intelligence bring down those of a higher order to their own level. The latter are obstructed in their activity, because in general an intensification of emotion creates unfavourable conditions for sound intellectual work, and further because the individuals are intimidated by the group and their mental activity is not free, and because there is a lowering in each individual of his sense of responsibility for his own performances.

The judgement with which McDougall sums up the psychological behaviour of a simple ‘unorganised’ group is no more friendly than that of Le Bon. Such a 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 an unruly child or an untutored passionate savage in a strange situation, rather than like that of its average member; and in the worst cases it is like that of a wild beast, rather than like that of human beings.’ (p. 45.)

Since McDougall contrasts the behaviour of a highly organised group with what has just been described, we shall be particularly interested to learn in what this organisation consists, and by what factors it is produced. The author enumerates five ‘principal conditions’ for raising collective mental life to a higher level.

The first and fundamental condition is that there should be some degree of continuity of existence in the group. This may be either material or formal: the former, if the same individuals persist in the group for some time; and the latter, if there is developed within the group a system of fixed positions which are occupied by a succession of individuals.

The second condition is that in the individual member of the group some definite idea should be formed of the nature, composition, functions and capacities of the group, so that from this he may develop an emotional relation to the group as a whole.

The third is that the group should be brought into interaction (perhaps in the form of rivalry) with other groups similar to it but differing from it in many respects.

The fourth is that the group should possess traditions, customs and habits, and especially such as determine the relations of its members to one another.

The fifth is that the group should have a definite structure, expressed in the specialisation and differentiation of the functions of its constituents.

According to McDougall, if these conditions are fulfilled, the psychological disadvantages of the group formation are removed. The collective lowering of intellectual ability is avoided by withdrawing the performance of intellectual tasks from the group and reserving them for individual members of it.

It seems to us that the condition which McDougall designates as the ‘organisation’ of a group can with more justification be described in another way. The problem consists in how to procure for the group precisely those features which were characteristic of the individual and which are extinguished in him by the formation of the group. For the individual, outside the primitive group, possessed his own continuity, his self-consciousness, his traditions and customs, his own particular functions and position, and kept apart from his rivals. Owing to his entry into an ‘unorganised’ group he had lost this distinctiveness for a time. If we thus recognise that the aim is to equip the group with the attributes of the individual, we shall be reminded of a valuable remark of Trotter’s, to the effect that the tendency towards the formation of groups is biologically a continuation of the multicellular character of all the higher organisms.