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Go to Introduction by Elizabeth Lunbeck
Go to ‘The Herd Instinct’ by Sigmund Freud
Classic /Social Psychology
CLASSIC

The herd instinct

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, 1921

With a new introduction and commentary by Elizabeth Lunbeck

Huge crowds celebrating the Reich Harvest Thanksgiving outside Hamelin in 1937. Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Introduction

How cultivated individuals can become barbarians in a crowd

Elizabeth Lunbeck

If you can bear it, go to YouTube and watch a video of a far-Right rally in Europe or the United States. It tends to be a boisterous spectacle verging on outright mayhem – and you, the concerned viewer, might wonder why many of those assembled appear so angry and full of hatred, so receptive to the provocations of a showman-in-chief goading them to expressions of intolerance and violence. What has happened to them, these otherwise friendly, engaging, law-abiding people?

Sigmund Freud wrote Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) with a version of this question in mind. Freud, you say? He’s dead, outdated and irrelevant, critics assert, a theorist of the late-19th-century bourgeois mind with little to say to our sophisticated modern selves. But I disagree – in fact, I’d argue that aspects of his work are more relevant than ever.

In Group Psychology, Freud asks why crowds make a ‘barbarian’ of the ‘cultivated individual’. Why are the inhibitions enforced by social life so readily overwhelmed by all that is ‘cruel, brutal and destructive’ when we join together with others? And why does the crowd need a strong leader, a hero to whom it willingly submits? The crowd – which is, after all, just an evanescent massing of humanity, a gathering that will quickly disperse once its task is finished – is oddly ‘obedient to authority’. It might appear anarchic, but at bottom it’s conservative and tradition-bound.

Freud argues that neither suggestion nor contagion – the idea that I am impelled to do what you do, to imitate you – can account for the paradoxical character of the crowd as both powerful and submissive. Rather, he proposes, it is love and all the emotional ties through which love is expressed that bind people together in a crowd. This might seem counterintuitive, in light of the crowd’s passionate anger. But it’s worth following Freud here.

First, this Freudian love is no sentimental thing. It encompasses a broad range of feelings, from self-love (or narcissism) to ‘friendship and love for humanity in general’ to the intensity of sexual union. Freud argues that it is these so-called ‘libidinal ties’ – ties fuelled by sexual energy – that distinguish a group from a mere collectivity of individuals. This applies regardless of whether the crowd is spontaneous and short-lived (like a rally) or institutionalised (like the army or the church). Freud is realist enough to acknowledge that manifestly loving, intimate relations among people are often tinged with hostility. You need only consider the ‘feelings of aversion’ that exist between husband and wife, or indeed feelings that characterise other long-lasting relationships, such as between business partners, between neighbouring towns, or on a grander scale between south and north German, Englishman and Scot. Love and hate are closely related.

But the hostility that runs through relations among intimates pales in comparison with the aggression we direct toward strangers. There, our ‘readiness for hatred’ is everywhere evident. So, as Freud sees it, it’s all the more striking that these antipathies vanish in the crowd: ‘individuals in the group behave as though they were uniform, tolerate the peculiarities of its other members, equate themselves with them, and have no feelings of aversion towards them’. The crowd unites as it gives vent to hateful sentiments. This seems plausible to us now; hatred directed at the Other has long proven a powerful source of solidarity. But Freud also sketches a less immediately plausible scenario: members of the collective forgo the ordinary pleasures of rivalry and dislike among themselves, and instead adopt en masse an ethos of equality and fellow-feeling. (A 2004 translation renders Freud’s title not Group but Mass Psychology, truer to Freud’s original Massenpsychologie.)

The mass does this by directing its passions to the leader, an outsider whom it treats as a superior. This leader’s pull is powerful enough to neutralise the intra-group hostilities, Freud says. Conjuring up a remarkably contemporary scene, he asks us to imagine a ‘troop of women and girls’, besotted by a musician and jostling round him after a performance, seeking his favour and perhaps a snippet of his ‘flowing locks’. Each seeks to prevail over the others, but they all know that they’re better off in renouncing their individual, rivalrous desires for the star’s love and instead uniting around their common love for him. They don’t pull out each other’s hair; each gets something of what she wants – the opportunity to pay homage to him and to feel enlivened in doing so. As at a rock concert, so in social life more generally. Identification with the leader trumps envy among individuals, knitting the group together.

There’s definitely some sleight of hand here; Freud isn’t interested in how the rock star’s fans decide to stop fighting among themselves but only in the fact that they do. His account is stronger descriptively than analytically. But his notion of identification is still a powerful tool for dissecting mass behaviour. For Freud, a successful leader invites the crowd to identify with him, which in his usage involves a big dose of idealisation. Think here, Freud says, of the little boy’s identification with his father – the boy wants to grow up and be like him. Identification can also be based on the perception of commonality with someone else, the sense that there’s something shared between us. The leader is at once larger-than-life and familiar, bigger than I am and just like me. He’s heroic and at the same time recognisably human.

Today, these dynamics converge in the figure of Donald Trump and his acolytes. Like Freud’s exemplary leader, Trump invites identification. In the eyes of his supporters, he’s both an idealised hero capable of extraordinary feats (‘Make America Great Again!’), but also an ordinary guy just like one of them. His gilded lifestyle is aspirational but his tastes are accessible (a ‘beer taste on a Champagne budget’, as one commentator put it in The Guardian). Trump’s roiling resentments, fears and disgusts are openly on display, inviting and authorising imitation. And he is a master of playing to the crowd’s desire for transcendence, deploying his own grandiosity to make them feel part of something bigger than themselves. First, he points to the crowd’s humiliation: ‘We’re tired of being the patsy for, like, everybody. Tea party people… You have not been treated fairly. You talk about marginalising.’ Then he declares himself their tribune: ‘At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t!’ Finally, he shares his power with them, telling the crowd: ‘You don’t know how big you are. You don’t know the power that you have.’ Trump and the crowd are one; the identification is complete.

Elizabeth Lunbeck is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. Her latest book is The Americanization of Narcissism (2014).

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Classic Text

Sigmund Freud

The herd instinct

From ‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’, translated by James Strachey

With a new commentary by Elizabeth Lunbeck

VII. Identification 

Identification is known to psychoanalysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person. It plays a part in the early history of the Oedipus complex. A little boy will exhibit a special interest in his father; he would like to grow like him and be like him, and take his place everywhere. We may say simply that he takes his father as his ideal. This behaviour has nothing to do with a passive or feminine attitude towards his father (and towards males in general); it is on the contrary typically masculine. …

To be like Dad. Photo by the Hulton Deutsch Collection/Getty

It is easy to state in a formula the distinction between an identification with the father and the choice of the father as an object. In the first case, one’s father is what one would like to be, and in the second he is what one would like to have. The distinction, that is, depends upon whether the tie attaches to the subject or to the object of the ego. The former kind of tie is therefore already possible before any sexual object-choice has been made. It is much more difficult to give a clear meta-psychological representation of the distinction. We can only see that identification endeavours to mould a person’s own ego after the fashion of the one that has been taken as a model. ...

There is a third particularly frequent and important case of symptom formation, in which the identification leaves entirely out of account any object-relation to the person who is being copied. Supposing, for instance, that one of the girls in a boarding school has had a letter from someone with whom she is secretly in love which arouses her jealousy, and that she reacts to it with a fit of hysterics; then some of her friends who know about it will catch the fit, as we say, by mental infection. The mechanism is that of identification based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation. The other girls would like to have a secret love affair too, and under the influence of a sense of guilt they also accept the suffering involved in it. It would be wrong to suppose that they take on the symptom out of sympathy. On the contrary, the sympathy only arises out of the identification, and this is proved by the fact that infection or imitation of this kind takes place in circumstances where even less pre-existing sympathy is to be assumed than usually exists between friends in a girls’ school. …

It [identification] may arise with any new perception of a common quality shared with some other person who is not an object of the sexual instinct. The more important this common quality is, the more successful may this partial identification become, and it may thus represent the beginning of a new tie.

We already begin to divine that the mutual tie between members of a group is in the nature of an identification of this kind, based upon an important emotional common quality; and we may suspect that this common quality lies in the nature of the tie with the leader.

VIII. Being in Love and Hypnosis

Even in its caprices the usage of language remains true to some kind of reality. Thus it gives the name of ‘love’ to a great many kinds of emotional relationship which we too group together theoretically as love; but then again it feels a doubt whether this love is real, true, actual love, and so hints at a whole scale of possibilities within the range of the phenomena of love.

In connection with this question of being in love we have always been struck by the phenomenon of sexual overvaluation – the fact that the loved object enjoys a certain amount of freedom from criticism, and that all its characteristics are valued more highly than those of people who are not loved, or than its own were at a time when it itself was not loved. If the sensual impulsions are more or less effectively repressed or set aside, the illusion is produced that the object has come to be sensually loved on account of its spiritual merits, whereas on the contrary these merits may really only have been lent to it by its sensual charm.

The tendency which falsifies judgment in this respect is that of idealisation. But now it is easier for us to find our bearings. We see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on to the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love-choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissism. …

Supporters of Donald Trump at a rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania in October 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The criticism exercised by that agency is silent; everything that the object does and asks for is right and blameless. Conscience has no application to anything that is done for the sake of the object; in the blindness of love remorselessness is carried to the pitch of crime. The whole situation can be completely summarised in a formula: The object has been put in the place of the ego ideal.

From being in love to hypnosis is evidently only a short step. The respects in which the two agree are obvious. There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism, towards the hypnotist as towards the loved object. There is the same sapping of the subject’s own initiative; no one can doubt that the hypnotist has stepped into the place of the ego ideal. It is only that everything is even clearer and more intense in hypnosis, so that it would be more to the point to explain being in love by means of hypnosis than the other way round. The hypnotist is the sole object, and no attention is paid to any but him. The fact that the ego experiences in a dream-like way whatever he may request or assert reminds us that we omitted to mention among the functions of the ego ideal the business of testing the reality of things. No wonder that the ego takes a perception for real if its reality is vouched for by the mental agency which ordinarily discharges the duty of testing the reality of things. The complete absence of impulsions which are uninhibited in their sexual aims contributes further towards the extreme purity of the phenomena. The hypnotic relation is the unlimited devotion of someone in love, but with sexual satisfaction excluded; whereas in the actual case of being in love this kind of satisfaction is only temporarily kept back, and remains in the background as a possible aim at some later time.

But on the other hand we may also say that the hypnotic relation is (if the expression is permissible) a group formation with two members. Hypnosis is not a good object for comparison with a group formation, because it is truer to say that it is identical with it. Out of the complicated fabric of the group it isolates one element for us – the behaviour of the individual to the leader. Hypnosis is distinguished from a group formation by this limitation of number, just as it is distinguished from being in love by the absence of directly sexual trends. In this respect it occupies a middle position between the two.

It is interesting to see that it is precisely those sexual impulsions that are inhibited in their aims which achieve such lasting ties between people. But this can easily be understood from the fact that they are not capable of complete satisfaction, while sexual impulsions which are uninhibited in their aims suffer an extraordinary reduction through the discharge of energy every time the sexual aim is attained. It is the fate of sensual love to become extinguished when it is satisfied; for it to be able to last, it must from the beginning be mixed with purely affectionate components – with such, that is, as are inhibited in their aims – or it must itself undergo a transformation of this kind. …

But after the preceding discussions we are quite in a position to give the formula for the libidinal constitution of groups, or at least of such groups as we have hitherto considered– namely, those that have a leader and have not been able by means of too much ‘organisation’ to acquire secondarily the characteristics of an individual. A primary group of this kind is a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.

IX. The Herd Instinct

We cannot for long enjoy the illusion that we have solved the riddle of the group with this formula. It is impossible to escape the immediate and disturbing recollection that all we have really done has been to shift the question on to the riddle of hypnosis, about which so many points have yet to be cleared up. And now another objection shows us our further path.

Fans of the Osmonds pop group in London in 1975. Photo by John Downing/Getty

It might be said that the intense emotional ties which we observe in groups are quite sufficient to explain one of their characteristics – the lack of independence and initiative in their members, the similarity in the reactions of all of them, their reduction, so to speak, to the level of group individuals. But if we look at it as a whole, a group shows us more than this. Some of its features – the weakness of intellectual ability, the lack of emotional restraint, the incapacity for moderation and delay, the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion and to work it off completely in the form of action – these and similar features, which we find so impressively described in Le Bon, show an unmistakable picture of a regression of mental activity to an earlier stage such as we are not surprised to find among savages or children. A regression of this sort is in particular an essential characteristic of common groups, while, as we have heard, in organised and artificial groups it can to a large extent be checked.

We thus have an impression of a state in which an individual’s private emotional impulses and intellectual acts are too weak to come to anything by themselves and are entirely dependent for this on being reinforced by being repeated in a similar way in the other members of the group. We are reminded of how many of these phenomena of dependence are part of the normal constitution of human society, of how little originality and personal courage are to be found in it, of how much every individual is ruled by those attitudes of the group mind which exhibit themselves in such forms as racial characteristics, class prejudices, public opinion, etc. The influence of suggestion becomes a greater riddle for us when we admit that it is not exercised only by the leader, but by every individual upon every other individual; and we must reproach ourselves with having unfairly emphasised the relation to the leader and with having kept the other factor of mutual suggestion too much in the background.

After this encouragement to modesty, we shall be inclined to listen to another voice, which promises us an explanation based upon simpler grounds. Such a one is to be found in Trotter’s thoughtful book on the herd instinct (1916), concerning which my only regret is that it does not entirely escape the antipathies that were set loose by the recent great war. …

But Trotter’s exposition is open, with even more justice than the others, to the objection that it takes too little account of the leader’s part in a group, while we incline rather to the opposite judgment, that it is impossible to grasp the nature of a group if the leader is disregarded. The herd instinct leaves no room at all for the leader; he is merely thrown in along with the herd, almost by chance; it follows, too, that no path leads from this instinct to the need for a God; the herd is without a herdsman. …

Ecstatic crowds cheer Adolf Hitler's arrival in Karlsbad in the Sudetenland in 1938. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty

It is naturally no easy matter to trace the ontogenesis of the herd instinct. … Something like it first grows up, in a nursery containing many children, out of the children’s relation to their parents, and it does so as a reaction to the initial envy with which the elder child receives the younger one. The elder child would certainly like to put his successor jealously aside, to keep it away from the parents, and to rob it of all its privileges; but in the face of the fact that this younger child (like all that come later) is loved by the parents as much as he himself is, and in consequence of the impossibility of his maintaining his hostile attitude without damaging himself, he is forced into identifying himself with the other children. So there grows up in the troop of children a communal or group feeling, which is then further developed at school. The first demand made by this reaction-formation is for justice, for equal treatment for all. We all know how loudly and implacably this claim is put forward at school. If one cannot be the favourite oneself, at all events nobody else shall be the favourite.

This transformation – the replacing of jealousy by a group feeling in the nursery and classroom – might be considered improbable, if the same process could not later on be observed again in other circumstances. We have only to think of the troop of women and girls, all of them in love in an enthusiastically sentimental way, who crowd round a singer or pianist after his performance. It would certainly be easy for each of them to be jealous of the rest; but, in the face of their numbers and the consequent impossibility of their reaching the aim of their love, they renounce it, and, instead of pulling out one another’s hair, they act as a united group, do homage to the hero of the occasion with their common actions, and would probably be glad to have a share of his flowing locks. Originally rivals, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object. When, as is usual, an instinctual situation is capable of various outcomes, we shall not be surprised that the actual outcome is one which brings with it the possibility of a certain amount of satisfaction, whereas some other outcome, in itself more obvious, is passed over because the circumstances of life prevent its leading to any such satisfaction.

What appears later on in society in the shape of Gemeingeist, esprit de corps, ‘group spirit’, etc, does not belie its derivation from what was originally envy. No one must want to put himself forward, every one must be the same and have the same. Social justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or, what is the same thing, may not be able to ask for them. This demand for equality is the root of social conscience and the sense of duty. It reveals itself unexpectedly in the syphilitic’s dread of infecting other people, which psychoanalysis has taught us to understand. The dread exhibited by these poor wretches corresponds to their violent struggles against the unconscious wish to spread their infection on to other people; for why should they alone be infected and cut off from so much? why not other people as well? ...

Thus social feeling is based upon the reversal of what was first a hostile feeling into a positively toned tie in the nature of an identification. So far as we have hitherto been able to follow the course of events, this reversal seems to occur under the influence of a common affectionate tie with a person outside the group. We do not ourselves regard our analysis of identification as exhaustive, but it is enough for our present purpose that we should revert to this one feature – its demand that equalisation shall be consistently carried through. We have already heard in the discussion of the two artificial groups, church and army, that their necessary precondition is that all their members should be loved in the same way by one person, the leader. Do not let us forget, however, that the demand for equality in a group applies only to its members and not to the leader. All the members must be equal to one another, but they all want to be ruled by one person. Many equals, who can identify themselves with one another, and a single person superior to them all – that is the situation that we find realised in groups which are capable of subsisting. Let us venture, then, to correct Trotter’s pronouncement that man is a herd animal and assert that he is rather a horde animal, an individual creature in a horde led by a chief.

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. He was one of the most influential figures in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, and his works include The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), among many others. 

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