Collective Behavior: Contagion Theory
The theory of contagion was developed in the late nineteenth century by social theorists specializing in group psychology. These group psychologists argued that the behaviors, emotions, and thinking displayed by certain types of groups were very different from the behaviors that individuals normally display in their everyday life. Simply stated, the theory of contagion posits that the emotions and actions displayed by individuals when in a group can, in a sense, become contagious and spread to other members of a group, culminating in distinct forms of social action. The first studies of social contagion focused on particular types of group formations such as crowds and mobs and used contagion theory to explain why these types of groups were prone to emotional and violent outbursts. Later reformulations of contagion theory emerging in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s extended the theory to explain a broad spectrum of social phenomena like fashion fads, political protests, and social movements.
Keywords Circular Reaction; Collective Behavior; Contagion; Craze; Crowd; Identification; Libidinal Ties; Mass; Panic; Social Movement; Suggestibility; Unconscious
Gustave Le Bon: Contagion
The author and group psychologist most noteworthy for developing the theory of contagion is Gustave Le Bon, who in 1891 published his famous book, The Crowd . In The Crowd, Le Bon gave an account of group formation and collective action based on psychological principles that attempts to explain the special attributes of groups and the power of groups over individuals. He argued that certain types of groups, which he defined as crowds, constitute a level of phenomena that is wholly separate from individual phenomena because of the unique psychological laws that govern the group dynamics of crowds. Thus, unlike many of the other psychological and utilitarian social theories of this era, Le Bon's theory stressed the notion that the group is more than the mere sum of the individuals of which it is composed. Le Bon (1891-1979) illustrated this idea with an analogy to chemistry:
In the aggregate which constitutes a crowd there is in no way a summing-up of or an average struck between its elements. What really takes place is a combination followed by the creation of new characteristics, just as in chemistry certain elements, when brought into contact… combine to form a new body possessing properties quite different from those of the bodies that served to form it. (p. 60)
There are two distinguishing psychological characteristics of crowds that, for Le Bon, make them more than a simple agglomerate of individuals. One characteristic is the suppression of individuality that occurs in crowd formations. Individuals caught up in crowds can lose their senses of self and begin to act almost entirely as a collective unit. As a result, individuals within a crowd can more easily act without reflecting on the consequences of their actions. The other important characteristic of crowds is the psychological transformation that occurs in an individual's mind when drawn into a crowd. Le Bon referred to this transformation in terms of the traditional psychological distinction between the conscious and unconscious spheres of an individual mind. This type of psychological theory suggests that when individuals are in a fully conscious state, they are more easily able to restrain themselves from basing their actions solely on fundamental drives and desires and thus less apt to be ruled by emotional whims and physical inclinations. Yet when the mind of an individual is controlled by a predominately unconscious state, such as when swept up in a crowd, the conscious tendencies of rational thinking and self-reflection, which normally inhibit one from acting in accordance with base instincts, are bypassed. This increased role of the unconscious thus causes one to be less restrained in the pursuit of desires and inclinations despite their consequences and more susceptible to emotional enticement.
Le Bon argued that these emergent characteristics of crowds are the result of three primary causes: "the sentiment of invincible power," "contagion," and "suggestibility" (p. 61). He attributed the feeling of invincibility to the crowd's realization of its strength in numbers, and argued that this sense of omnipotence coupled with the individual's sense of anonymity in a crowd allow the individual "to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint" (p. 61). Le Bon went on to describe contagion as a type of collective hypnotic trance in which emotions and actions, once introduced, have a tendency to spread throughout the crowd, and concluded that suggestibility is the principle psychological force of which contagion is the effect. For Le Bon, the psychological phenomena of suggestibility and contagion emerge as a result of the psychological transformation of the individual in which the "conscious personality" disappears, allowing for a type of unconscious, unreflective, and hypnotic "fascination" to abound (p. 62).
Sigmund Freud: Libidinal Ties
Sigmund Freud built on the work of Le Bon and attempted to further explain this dynamic in which unconscious tendencies bypass the role of consciousness in certain group formations. Hence, in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, Freud (1921/1959) adopted Le Bon's analysis of suggestion and contagion. In order to describe the processes behind these group processes, Freud contributed two of his own concepts: the notion of libido and the notion of identification. Libido is described, as it is elsewhere in Freud's works, as a type of emotional energy derived from sexual drives. Yet in the group context the libido takes on another role as a type of foundation or glue that binds the members of the group together in the form of libidinal ties. For Freud, these libidinal ties that exist between the members of a group owe their existence to a parallel and concurrent psychological process, which Freud refers to as identification.
In one sense identification represents the primary libidinal or emotional tie that a small child develops for the parent of the opposite sex; yet in another sense, Freud also used this initial development of an emotional tie to explain how such ties are developed between the members of a group. Thus in the first sense, the theory of identification has its roots in Freud's theory of sexuality: it is a stage in the psychosexual development of children resulting from the Oedipus complex.
The Oedipus complex is the term Freud used to describe a condition that he argued is commonly present in the sexual and emotional development of male children. In it the boy develops a type of sexual attachment to his mother as a result of his close relationship to her during the early stages of his development. As a result of this desire to have his mother, the boy simultaneously undergoes the process of identification with the father in which he desires to be like his father and to take over his role in the family:
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. (Freud, 1921/1959, p. 47)
Freud thus posited that this type of identification also occurs in certain types of groups, first as a type of special interest in the group leader; then, based on the premise that the leader loves each of the members of the group equally, this identification spreads in the form of emotional or libidinal ties between the members of the group.
In order to explain how these unconscious tendencies toward identification and libidinal connections manifest themselves in the minds of group members, Freud drew on his theory of the different spheres in an individual's mind, which he refers to as the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud described the id as governed by the pleasure principle; it is the region of the...
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