Harold Walsby: Fear of the Group

What are we to gather from all this evidence from the psychological study of large groups and masses of people?

Firstly, we should note how closely the above descriptions of the psychological characteristics of groups correspond with the characteristics of the fascist outlook – as is evidenced by the quotations, given in Chapter 3, from fascist speakers and writers. (And much of this study of groups, we must remember, was carried on and written about before the advent of fascism or the Nazis.)

The intolerance, violence, logical inconsistency, extremity in action, impulsiveness, irrationalism, docility and servility to absolute authority, respect for force, excessive emotionalism and suggestibility – all these characteristics described by the above-named psychologists as typical of the group, the “mob,” are well in accordance with typical and characteristic features of fascism and, as McDougall says, “produce all the manifestations we have learnt to expect of any irresponsible and absolute power.” All these characteristics can be found in abundance if we examine fascist utterances and behaviour. Two of the psychologists, we noticed, compare the group to primitive uncivilised man; Freud, in particular, in his Group Psychology, endeavours to show an intimate connection between the modern group and the primal horde.

Secondly, but more important, we should note – and note well – the collective nature of these characteristic modes of behaviour, thinking and feeling; that is to say, we should clearly observe that they are modes which not only arise out of group formation, but which also lend themselves readily to the formation, and collective expression, of large groups of people, and, moreover, that they are modes which tend to preserve the unity of the group and its behaviour. “Thinking for oneself,” “independence of thought,” “using one’s own reason,” “individual judgment,” “detached criticism,” cannot be expressed by the group as a whole. Indeed, such things presuppose the individual’s escape and detachment from the overwhelming mental influence and dictates of the group. And not only is independence of thought incompatible with group or collective expression, but it positively tends to disrupt it and threatens to break up the unity – even the very existence itself – of the group. Hence the intolerance and hostility with which the group meets all attempts, on the part of any individual, to be objective, analytical, theoretical, critical and independent in thought.

Of course, it must be understood that we are referring only to the majority of groups and particularly to the larger, the random or more casual kind of group, e.g., gatherings or dispersed associations which are open to and attract the general public.

Nevertheless, much of what we have to say will apply, with suitable modifications, to most of the others. How are we to account, then, for the behaviour and character of the majority of groups? For it is not something which can be regarded by the student as self-evident, self-explanatory, which can be simply taken for granted, or which can be dismissed as just “natural.” The explanation, we suggest, can be traced to two main complementary and mutually dependent sources, or systems, which combine to produce the results we have had described to us. These two main factors are:

(1) the mechanisms and limitations of group expression underlying the behaviour of the group as a united whole;

(2) the mechanisms and limitations of individual expression underlying the behaviour of the majority of the individual members of the group.

While we have differentiated between these two systems, it should be clearly grasped that there is no sharp line of division between them; they tend, in other words, to shade into one another. One aspect of this is in the variable size of groups – the quantitative aspect. A single individual, for example, can be regarded, at the one extreme of size, as constituting the smallest possible group: i.e., a group containing one member. Here, as is obvious, the individual and the group coincide. Another aspect is the qualitative one: the variable qualitative level of groups – and this we will deal with later.

Now, if we consider for a moment the behaviour of the group as a whole, it will be clear that the ideas and feelings capable of group or mass expression, can only be of the simplest, most limited kind. While simple ideas such as those expressing agreement or disagreement, hatred or affection, contempt, anger or admiration, can be readily voiced by the crowd in the shouting of single words (“Yes!” “No!”) and short slogans – or by cheering, booing, hissing, clapping, laughing, groaning, stamping, etc. – the more complicated ideas involving wordy explanation and complex processes of reasoning are, in virtue of this, incapable of mass expression. If the more complex ideas are expressed in the presence of a group then they can only be voiced by the individual, as such, who stands apart from the group and puts himself, in a certain sense, in opposition to it. This implies a measure of discipline and organisation, for such individual expression can only be accomplished if and when the group inhibits itself, or is suppressed, into silence and non-expression. In this connection we may recall the frequently observed and well-known fact that the vast majority of the members of a group are very reluctant to emerge, to put themselves apart from the group, and voice themselves as individuals. While they may like to do so, their fear of the group is so great that they would rather remain submerged and anonymous. But as members of the group, with their identity and individuality obliterated, they will shout, sing, clap, roar, laugh, hiss, and behave generally, quite without reserve, fear or apprehension. “Stage-fright” and “microphone-fright” are other examples of the same thing.

Conventionality, or conformity, in modes of public behaviour, dressing etc., are again familiar instances of this submersion of independent individuality for fear of opposing the group. “What will the neighbours think?” is a common phrase which will expresses the ingrained conservatism of the masses, the huge majority of people, who model their lives very largely on considerations of this sort. Fear of what other people will think, or say, or do, is nothing more than another instance of the individual’s deep-rooted fear of putting himself in opposition to the group.

Here, then, when we contemplate the inherent limitations of group expression, on the one hand, and the universality of the individual’s fear of the group, on the other, we may feel we are approaching the explanation of the phenomena of mass suggestion, “emotional contagion,” of mass irrationality, intolerance, enthusiasm, impulsiveness, respect for force, and the whole host of characteristics which, as we have seen, are typical of the behaviour of large groups and crowds.

We shall, however, have to account for the intellectual, objective, reasoning, independently thinking minority of people who, according to Chakotin, tend to resist all suggestion; and, since they form a kind of group, to describe and explain their typical modes of behaviour, thinking and feeling, and how these modes differ qualitatively from those of the masses. Again, we shall have to account for the individual’s dread, itself, of the group, and also its great ubiquity.

But before we pass on to discuss these important issues we shall draw attention to some interesting matters which closely relate to the results of our discussion so far.

We have reached the point where we perceive, more or less dearly, a striking feature in the psychological relationship of the individual to the group, namely: the dread or fear in which isolation or opposition to the group is universally regarded by the individual. We perceive, too, that this fear compels the individual to submerge his individuality and efface himself in the group, where he feels at his ease. It is this fear which makes him shrink from asserting his independence of the group, of putting himself apart from it, of performing any act, having any thoughts or intentions which could be regarded as contrary to the ideas and intentions of the group as a whole, or as isolating him from it as an individual. We see, also, that if group expression is limited by its inherent nature to the simplest and crudest of ideas and sentiments, then, because of this deep-seated fear, each individual taking part in group expression will be similarly limited.

The latent feelings of dread and guilt – which arise (sometimes accompanied by blushing or signs of embarrassment) in a person when his individuality threatens to emerge from self-effacement in the group, or when, inadvertently, the attention of the group becomes fixed on him are also intimately connected with the hostility, the disapproval and condemnation with which the group member regards any attempt on the part of another to preserve an independent or critical attitude; the unity and existence of the group are threatened and those who resist the mass suggestion, who do not conform, are therefore a menace and must be suppressed. For the same reason hostility is felt towards all other groups which threaten the disruption of one’s own group. Within the group the individual feels strong; outside of it, on his own, he feels weak: “There’s safety in numbers” says the old tag of popular wisdom with deep truth.

Thus, we see that dread of the group, on the part of each individual member, appears to constitute a common factor and an underlying basis for all or many of the typical attributes and outstanding features of group behaviour. This dread, in the form of “fear of public opinion,” is well known and often referred to by writers. But what is not well known and not properly understood is its tremendous importance, is that this fear lies right down at the very roots of an overwhelming amount of human social activity, emotion and thought, and is involved in many different forms of group behaviour from that of mere crowds to that of dispersed masses; and that – since at all times individuals are also members of different kinds of groups, either congregated or dispersed, either organised or unorganised – this dread is involved in a great deal of “individual” behaviour.

We can see, here, that this universal fear of the group is not unconnected with the so-called human herd instinct, or instinct of gregariousness. We shall also see that it is intimately associated with processes of the human mind which have been investigated and described, on the one side, by Freud and the psychoanalysts, and on the other, by Pavlov and the reflexologists.

This brings us briefly to touch upon the question of leadership in so far as it is related to dread of the group. It has been said above, that members of a group, because of the dread, shrink from isolating themselves as individuals, would rather remain in self-effacement within the group and hesitate, even to draw attention in any way to themselves personally as this also tends to put them apart. How then are we to account for the phenomenon of leadership, which, in one form or another, is practically as universal as fear of the group, and which figures so prominently in nearly all descriptions of group behaviour? How is it possible, if the dread is so universal, for men, wherever there are groups, to come forward or push themselves forward, establish themselves as leaders, and isolate themselves from the group as individuals? How is it that, in spite of the dread, there are always some individuals who do draw attention to themselves and even seem to enjoy doing so? It appears that we have to deal with something more than just dread of the group.

As is so often the case with the human mind, it seems that, underlying the surface of actual events, what we are really dealing with is the interaction of conflicting and opposing tendencies. In this case the opposing tendencies would appear to be (a), the instinctive egoistically impulses, which drive the individual into struggle with his fellows and into the desire to subject them to himself, and (b), the fear of the group. To put it crudely but simply: the interaction is between the feeling or desire for personal, individual power, and fear of the power of the group. As we mentioned above the majority of the members of a group are reluctant to emerge and voice themselves as independent individuals though they may desire to do so.

Since the conflict between these opposing tendencies is going on, more or less unconsciously, all the time in the individual, then we can conclude that a large proportion, at least, of human behaviour – both group and individual behaviour – is in great measure due to it, and becomes more explicable in terms of this opposition. Much of Freud’s work has gone to show that this is, indeed, the true position. According to him there is something like a state of perpetual warfare, going on within each individual, between the id, which “stands for the untamed passions,” and the super-ego, “the representative of all the moral restrictions,” which can be “traced back to the influence of parents, teachers and so on” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis).

Briefly, then, we can say that the instinctive egoistic impulses of the leader of a group and also of the person who emerges to voice himself as an individual – or who deliberately attracts attention to himself – have to a large extent overcome the fear of isolating themselves from their particular groups, have overcome the compulsion to remain anonymous. In general, however, as Freud himself says, “The fear of the super-ego should normally never cease, since it is indispensable in the social relations in the form of moral anxiety, and it is only in the rarest instances that an individual succeeds in becoming independent of the community.” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p.116.)

We are reminded, here, of Chakotin’s references to the active 10 percent and the passive 90 percent and also of Hitler’s distinction between the few, the leaders, and the passive, “sheep-like” masses.

There are, of course, other, more complex and deeper considerations involved in this complicated question of the individual in his relation to the group and to the leader. But we shall attempt to come to some understanding of these in later pages.

Before proceeding to discuss the smaller but more intellectual types of group it remains for us to observe how these mass modes of behaviour, thinking and feeling are discernible in large-scale political movements, particularly in those of Right-wing and fascist politics. In other words, what we wish to show is that the more exclusively Right-wing a political movement is, the more will its political action, feeling, and thinking, clearly exhibit these mass or collectivist modes of behaviour. We have already seen in an earlier chapter that the economic content of Right-wing modes of political behaviour is economic individualism; that is to say, an identification with economic individualism is the basic subject-matter, the fundamental content, of Right-wing political forms of expression. We have since learnt that these political forms or modes (characteristic of the Right-wing masses) are, in themselves, highly collectivist political modes.

Thus, in fastening our attention upon the form or mode of political expression, as distinct from its content or subject-matter – by examining the characteristics of the modes of political expression instead of discussing the attributes of their economic contents – we arrive at the concept of political collectivism. And, moreover, the concept of political collectivism can now be clearly distinguished from the concept of economic collectivism – which, as we saw in Chapter 2, is the basic economic content or subject-matter with which the Left-wing minority identify themselves.

It appears, then, that attachment to the idea of economic individualism necessarily involves attachment to a mode of expression which can now be described as political collectivism. We may possibly anticipate the further development that, at the other extreme of our political scale, attachment to the idea of economic collectivism also necessarily involves an attachment to a mode of expression which we can now describe as political individualism. We shall, in fact, find this to be the case.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index