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Covid and the Madness of Crowds

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The emotional wave that swept through the herd of humanity during the Great Fear turned into a mad dash for lockdowns. Particular individuals played prominent roles but no evil genius was behind it all, though of course there was no shortage of people claiming that they or someone else had planned it. It was a whole-group production, out of the control of any single person or sub-group.

[This essay is excerpted from The Great Covid Panic.]

While the Great Fear swept across the globe, leaving few stones unturned, the Illusion of Control phase in rich countries crucially involved the reemergence of national crowds. Crowd dynamics can explain the strangest elements of the Great Panic, such as the longevity of the popularity of self-destructive measures and the emergence of totalitarian national governments.

To tell this story, we must first explain what we mean by crowds as distinct from ‘normal’ groups. We must explain how they relate to emotions, empathy and ideology. To do so we draw on the work of famous sociologists studying crowds 50 or more years ago, including Norbert Elias, Theodor Adorno, Elias Canetti and Gustav le Bon. 

These scholars wrote about crowds in a way modern sociologists hardly do anymore: as groups that become insane by the previous standards of the same group. Bystanders to a crowd feel they are witnessing something that looks like people becoming possessed by spirits or demons. While the authors do not believe in demonic possession, this was the normal way to think about crowds for centuries. Le Bon and Canetti thought about them this way too.

Let us then explore the demons of the Great Panic. 

Welcome to the Crowd

Crowds are large social groups operating in an emotionally intense mode whose members share an obsession. The obsession can change over time and membership too can evolve, but the presence of an intense shared obsession is the key hallmark of a crowd. Tens of thousands of people watching a game in a sports stadium constitute a crowd, as all are emotionally activated and focused on the same thing — the game — at the same time. They mirror each other’s obsession and are aware that they are in a group in which everyone is watching the same thing. Seeing their own obsession mirrored in the reactions of others sweeps them along in a pleasant intense joint experience.

The crowd in a sports stadium is a short-lived crowd and not a particularly dangerous one, as it disbands when the game is over: the joint obsession does not last long enough to support the formation of a strongly bonded group. 

Regularly functioning ‘normal’ social groups, by contrast, have multiple goals that vary at high frequency over time in their importance to members. We have written extensively in the past on what ‘normal group’ behaviour is and what types of groups there are, with our view close to the ‘social identity’ school in psychology. In brief, long-lived groups with strong emotional ties among members, like families or nations, pursue the collective interest of their members in a number of ways.

A country as a whole can be a social group without being a crowd, as is the case when its members are worried about a hundred and one things at a given moment with no common, intense focus. A country becomes a crowd when a single obsession absorbs its members’ focus, forming the topic that everyone thinks about, talks about and even obsesses about privately.

Often, countries only have a single obsession for a very short period of time, such as on an election day or during a national festival, but sometimes they can be obsessed about one thing for years. For example, France was obsessed with winning the First World War during the whole of the 1914-1918 period. Villages, churches, and political movements too can transform into crowds for periods of time.

Their singular obsession, emotional intensity, and size lead to crowds sometimes attaining great power and dictating directions that can change the course of history for a whole country, or even for the world. The inherent danger is that their obsession blinds them to everything else that matters in normal times.

The supreme example of the genesis of a powerful and dangerous crowd is the mass political rallies organised by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. In these rallies, hundreds of thousands of Germans stood close to each other in a field, touching each other, all oriented towards the same focal point — their leader — from whom all truth and morality was seen to emanate. Those in the crowd lost their individuality and their ability to think critically and independently. They became part of a single social entity in which everyone reacted in the same way, cheering this and booing that, and promising undying loyalty to the leader and vengeance to the identified enemy.

Monumental decisions over which people acting individually would have agonised for decades, such as whether their Jewish neighbours who fought with them in the First World War were actually their enemies, were decided in seconds by crowds. The leader of the crowd said they were enemies and hundreds of thousands of voices instantly affirmed it. Lifelong friends became mortal enemies in seconds during these crowd events, and total strangers became blood brothers willing to fight shoulder to shoulder to the death in the trenches.

The Nazis achieved this incredible feat with careful management. Individuals would be ‘warmed up’ with loud music, military parades and feverish early speakers talking up the importance of the supreme leader. Group symbols like giant flags and shiny uniforms were on display everywhere. Smells and lighting were used to create a homely yet heavenly feel.

The Nazis did not invent crowds, nor how to create and manipulate them. They understood the power of crowds from their reading of history, which is full of examples hardly studied nowadays. The 1910s gave rise to crowds of socialists. The 1880s saw crowds of nationalists. The 17th century saw crowds of American puritans. The 19th century saw religious crowds in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Crowds of farmers were a staple of scientific writing for decades in the era of the Enlightenment, when scientists and merchants saw it as their duty to ‘civilise’ their populations by helping them turn away from crowd behaviour and think for themselves.

In 1841, the poet Charles Mackay authored the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in which he describes what he learned from watching cities, villages and countries in times of war, illness, religious and ideological fanaticism. His key message to the future is embodied in this quote: ‘Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.’ Earlier and later writers said similar things. We take Mackay’s pronouncement to be an empirical claim that once a crowd has lasted for a while, it will not dissolve in a bang, but slowly.

The Three Defining Features of a Crowd

Three elements distinguish the crowds we are interested in from normal groups. 

The clearest distinguishing feature of a crowd is its joint focus on something. The ‘something’ can be almost anything and need not even be real. Crowds can form around an obsession about a fear of vampires, a religious ideal, a desire for vengeance, a charismatic leader, a coming apocalyptic event, the second coming of a god or the production of a particular flower. The ‘something’ need not be anything the individuals would in tranquil times care about or even believe in, like vengeance or vampires. Yet, individuals in a crowd will attend to and talk about the ‘something’ constantly, make plans and promises to each other about it, and berate anyone who wavers in their determination to stamp it out, get it, avoid it, unite with it, or whatever the logic of the obsession demands.

A second distinguishing feature is that in a crowd both truth and morality cease to be fixed things held by individuals. They instead become outcomes of the obsession of the crowd that are almost instantly adopted by all crowd members. Whether or not Jews are the enemy ceases to be an individual moral choice and instead a truth emerges that they are, as an outcome of the group obsession. Whether or not surface cleaning helps to avoid infections stops being the outcome of scientific inquiry, and instead the truth that it does help is elevated to this status as a result of the group obsession. This truth is then instantly adopted by all in the crowd. Whether death is something glorious to be desired or something horrible to flee from can likewise be immediately decided as an outcome of the obsession of a crowd, rather than the result of individual morality. 

Everything that individuals normally relate to as if it is fixed becomes fluid in a crowd. It is this fluidity that outsiders find most fascinating, seeing it as a form of insanity. The crowd members see those who do not go along with the new truths and the new morality as either in denial, evil, or outright insane themselves.

Yet how can things as vast as ‘truth’ and ‘morality’ become crowd-level constructs if the deliberations and obsessions of the crowd are so limited?  To understand this, we envision ‘truth’ as seen by an individual as a giant canvas on which many elements are painted. Every individual has his own personal giant canvas, normally containing only some elements that also appear on others’ canvases.

When individuals merge into a crowd, the crowd’s obsession resolves into a new truth, which almost instantly replaces whatever individuals previously had in that part of their canvas. Whatever individuals previously thought about face masks gets instantly overwritten when the crowd leaders pronounce a new view on face masks. Members of the crowd, including scientists, then rationalise that new view and simply assert it to be the truth. If they need to forget that they recently said something different, they will, and they will belittle their former truth with barely a whimper.

Those wanting to argue against any new crowd-resolved truth are given the impossible task of disproving the new truth beyond all doubt to the satisfaction of the crowd. With no mental agony at all, crowd members will pretend to themselves that the new view is totally validated and that all people who say otherwise are lesser beings. The same goes for morality: individual variation is bulldozed by the new crowd-resolved morality, even when it comes to things as fundamental as life and death, and even if crowd members believed the exact opposite only moments before the new morality was resolved. The period of hesitation and ambivalence during which individual perspectives get steamrolled is often no longer than minutes — weeks at the most.

A third element of crowds is that the group as a whole sanctifies behaviour deemed unconscionable at the individual level. The crowd openly does what individuals in it would still see as unethical and criminal to do on a personal basis. Repressed desires often come out at the crowd level as sanctified group behaviour. A crowd will become boastful, domineering, vengeful and violent precisely in societies made up of people who are conditioned to be shy, humble, forgiving, and peaceful. To the outsider it is an extraordinary and chilling phenomenon to see the crowd become an agent of group crimes, while those within the crowd fail to see this transformation.

Group crimes have been richly evident in Covid times. The lonely have inflicted loneliness on others via the edicts of the crowd. Those being bossed around in their normal lives have inflicted humiliation on others through the decisions of the crowd leaders to humiliate those resisting the crowd. Lacking warm social lives themselves, crowd members have been living vicariously through their crowd leaders, while inflicting misery on everyone else. Operating as a crowd, people can do and celebrate things that are otherwise impossible, which is why crowds can be so dangerous. In the wrong circumstances, a lust for destruction can emerge and can then be indulged on an industrial scale.

The three distinguishing features of a crowd – a single obsession, the fluidity of morals and truth, and group criminality – have been studied for centuries. These characteristics describe many cults, mass movements, religious sects and groups of fanatics. We see miniature versions of crowd behaviour in all group events, such as parties, weddings and funerals, where those present join in with crowd-like behaviour for a short while. But weddings, parties and funerals have a clear goal and a clear end point. Real crowds do not have a clear end point, though they do all invariably come to an end, sometimes after days and sometimes after decades.

Crowds as Beasts and Masters

Crowds can be grouped into types based mainly on the nature of the joint obsession that defines them. Crowds unified by a charismatic leader, like cults, are usually kept busy with joint projects such as building something or fighting something. Crowds can also be unified by an initial fear or an initial opportunity. The Great Panic has led to crowds that initially formed from a joint fear, while conquering armies are examples of crowds formed on the back of joint opportunities. Crowds can also be formed by joint grief, a shared god, or some kind of quest.

In all cases, however, crowds have a certain joint intelligence to them. Not only is there a very deliberate intellectual attitude towards the joint obsession, whether that is to exterminate all Jews or to suppress the Covid virus, but a certain rationality protects the maintenance of the crowd itself. As if the crowd was a single smart organism, it senses dangers to its existence and its cohesion that it will counter. This is why all crowds engage in censorship within the crowd, why they resent examples of groups that look like the same crowd making very different choices, and why they see alternative crowds as competitors to be destroyed or avoided. Crowds find enemies and seek to neutralise them.

Crowds also adjust their focus of obsession strategically over time. When one goal is achieved, a crowd will try to switch to another goal in order to keep going as a crowd. We saw this in play during the Covid period when the goal to suppress Covid in order to buy time morphed seamlessly into the goal to eliminate the virus. That second goal allows a longer-lived and more intense crowd than mere temporary suppression. In turn, elimination of the virus easily transforms into an obsession with potential future variants, allowing the crowd to survive even when vaccination or herd immunity was initially seen to have achieved the ‘elimination’ goal.

Some crowds are looked back upon in total horror, like the Nazis, while others are regarded with fondness, like the early American revolutionaries. Still others are looked back on negatively but more with weary incredulity than high moral disdain, like the American Prohibitionists. The Covid crowds have elements of each of these three well-known historical crowds, but are not exactly like any of them. Finding no perfect match from history, we opt to take a closer look at some of the psychology relevant to crowds and how it has played out in historical examples, aiming to extract lessons for our own times.

What makes crowds appealing to individuals, and what determines whether someone escapes a crowd or fails to become a member in the first place?

Being in a crowd brings several wonderful feelings to its members. Crowd members feel themselves to be part of a great movement, which often brings feelings of deep connection to many others, all experiencing the joys of community. This was definitely a big bonus to membership in the crowds constructed by the Nazis. The Covid crowds have this to a lesser degree because their joint obsession forbids them from physical closeness to many others. This is partly why the Covid crowds are so strongly opposed to social events in which many people meet: the great pleasure of actual physical proximity might allow an emotional high strong enough to overcome the emotional bonds of the Covid crowd, potentially giving rise to a competitor that the Covid crowd cannot allow.

Another wonderful feeling crowds give their members is release from the mental effort involved in deciding upon, updating and maintaining individual truth and individual morality. Both truth and morality are rather energy-consuming things for individuals to construct and maintain. A crowd offers people the opportunity to stop deliberating and making their own moral judgments. They can instead instantly feel virtuous, without having to expend energy thinking about what virtue really is, simply by complying with the strictures of the crowd.

In a crowd, all considerations other than the joint obsession lose their importance, which allows individuals to outsource their individuality to the group more completely than at other times. This frees people from having to think about many things, liberating time and energy for other pursuits which could well include expanding the number and/or intensity of activities related to the crowd’s obsession. This is partly why some crowds can be fantastically creative and productive: their members have let go of many other activities and are functioning as one on their new big project.

This joy of freedom from individual responsibility is balanced out by the general tendency of crowds to become dictatorships even if they start out lacking any unifying leadership. This tendency arises for two main reasons. The first is the inevitable struggle within the crowd over who gets heard first about what to do in order to satisfy the obsession. In that struggle, those who manage to denounce their opponents as enemies of the crowd tend to win the battle and grab the reins of group leadership, with the losers either killed or diminished within the crowd. This broad narrative is well known from historical revolutions that famously ‘ate their own children’ as the initial leadership gradually became captured by one small group that killed off internal competitors. The French Revolution quickly put its own initial leaders, such as Robespierre, under the guillotine; the more fanatical Nazis in Germany killed off close competitors in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’; and in the early years after the Russian Revolution, Stalin won the struggle for power and murdered all other initial senior leaders.

The second reason for the tendency of crowds to become dictatorships is the inherent violence of crowds when threatened. Anything not controlled by the crowd becomes an enemy to its existence. Thus under threat, a crowd naturally becomes aggressive, intolerant and even murderous towards those members who begin to waver and no longer subscribe to the obsession. Crowd leaders can take advantage of that intolerance and aggression by promising to punish the traitors. 

Crowds naturally become aggressive and eventually murderous towards sub-groups within themselves that fall afoul of the group obsession, as exemplified by Jews who did not fit the story of the superior Aryan race. This further cements a single, intolerant set of rules wielded by adherents as they patrol the borders of the crowd.

This motivation to remain a crowd with the capacity for violence toward those resisting it naturally led, in the case of the Great Fear, to the creation of national or regional crowds because groups can only punish deviants within their own territories. The international wave of fear therefore gave birth to a litter of national crowds which each policed itself domestically. We saw this almost universally in the Illusion of Control phase when countries slammed their borders shut to keep out foreigners, and states and provinces regularly closed domestic borders against neighbouring states and provinces. The Covid crowds wanted to remain cohesive, and in pursuit of that goal it was important to treat all others as ‘different’ and ‘threatening’. 

A spectacular example of this tendency was seen in Australia, which for more than a hundred years had been a single country with huge flows of travellers between states. This normalcy suddenly fell apart in 2020 as every state and territory closed itself off from the others for some period of time. The behaviour continued in 2021 when periodic outbreaks of Covid cases sprang up like wildfires in various localities across the country. The border closures were of course always defended on the basis of the obsession — to tame the threat of infection.

Border closures also had an ancillary benefit for the crowd, which was to demonstrate that the crowd had the power to ‘do something’ about the obsession by simply defining the borders of itself. For a while, individual Australian states acted as separate crowds that were sealed off from each other and even held different beliefs about how to act. When the national government asserted its own power through taxation and spending, much of the ‘rally around the local government’ sentiment changed into ‘rally around the national government’ sentiment, causing the Australian Covid crowds to merge. Still, state governments at various times tried to create state-based crowds, and they were not without success.

In all countries that imposed lockdowns and compulsory social distancing, steps were taken towards dictatorship. Governments invoked various legal devices to suspend normal legislative channels and rule by decree. The most popular device was simply to declare a ‘state of emergency’, ‘state of disaster’ or ‘state of alarm’. Government officials communicated to their constituents directly via the media, bypassed parliamentary oversight on budgets and sidelined elected legislators from decision-making in general. 

In nearly all countries, courts reinterpreted laws so that the respect for human rights applying in normal times — sometimes enshrined in constitutions — did not have to constrain government action. Only after many months did courts begin to wake up to this mistake and enforce constitutional provisions. This indicates how judges themselves can be crowd members, sharing the crowd obsession and accepting the excuses the crowd puts forward. If that means they have to pretend a minor risk of Covid deaths constitutes the huge danger needed to justify government violations of the rights of free speech, privacy and protest, then so be it.

We do not expect democracies to relinquish all the trappings of democracy within eighteen months. But neither would it be reasonable to expect most democracies to survive the Great Panic if it were to endure a high intensity for, say, another ten years. It would not be unrealistic in that case to see a slide toward the same phenomena experienced in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the French Revolution and the Nationalist wave in Spain in the 1930s: dissent strengthens, the crowd reacts more murderously, enforcement groups coalesce and are used to command and control, and democracy is killed off. 

Fortunately for us all, the Great Panic is unlikely to last another ten years at the level of intensity of those crowds from history. The obsessions of the Covid crowds do not have the same force and appeal as the obsessions of the destructive crowds described in history books.

Nonetheless, a danger lurks that the Covid crowds may fasten onto new obsessions with more potential. There are some worrying signs. In 2021 we see the formation of more sinister enforcement groups enabling governments to act with increasing aggression toward anyone not following the Covid guidelines. We also see increased censorship by scientific institutions, social media channels and national television stations. At the same time, there is increased opposition, which we would expect to become the first victim of totalitarianism if the Great Panic continues to strengthen. 

Simply put, we are at a crossroads in 2021 between a gradual dissolution of the crowds formed under the Great Panic, and their further strengthening accompanied by increasing violence.

How Crowds End

Sometimes a crowd comes to an end because the charismatic leader who held it together dies, is imprisoned or is otherwise neutralised. Its members then tend to splinter into smaller groups and gradually become reabsorbed into normal society, relearning that there are other things to live for.

Sometimes a crowd comes to an end because of the total victory of its obsession and the inability of the leadership that formed around the obsession to sustain a sense of purpose. The Russian Revolution exemplifies this: a triumphant ideology that exhausted itself and could achieve no more after about 70 years. Its initial leaders died from old age, the firing squad, poisoning, or the ice axe, and its founding population literally died out, leaving a new generation less fanatical because there was less to oppose and jettison. 

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 too followed the trajectory of total victory for its ideology and leading group, before being stopped from expansion on the battlefields of Iraq and losing its founding leadership through death or corruption as the decades went by.

Often, crowds end because a more powerful authority takes over, removes the leadership, and distracts the population from its obsession. This happened to the rural communities obsessed with werewolves and vampires in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Authority figures from the church and the new state bureaucracies swept into the benighted villages and bombarded their inhabitants with alternative messages for long enough to come to a different view, or at least for them to stop spouting nonsense.

Similarly, Nazi Germany was conquered by opposing armies from countries that organised a complete restructuring of its society, suppressing Nazi ideology for long enough for the Germans themselves to disown it. The same occurred to end the Japanese empire in 1945. The French Revolution likewise ended in military defeat. In many countries, the socialists, communists, puritans, abolitionists and other fanatical crowds experienced actual limits to their power and the gradual demise of their membership.

A crowd can also end when a new obsession comes along that offers the leadership of the existing crowd fresh opportunities, but makes the old structures and priorities obsolete and leaves many in the previous crowd stranded. The obsession of the US military with Islamic fundamentalism that started with a bang on 9/11/2001 gradually faded as that threat diminished and an entirely different enemy emerged, in the form of the challenge to American hegemony by the Chinese. To fight this required new alliances and new military structures to replace those that had worked against the old threat.

In the absence of a crushing military defeat, a clear limit to domestic victory over competing crowds, or the emergence of a new focus for some part of the crowd, the lesson of history is that crowds naturally dissolve, but slowly. As the poet MacKay wrote in 1841, people come to their senses one by one. The crowd dissolves at the edges, like the Soviet Union or the Puritans. The less committed members who got less out of the crowd lose their faith, adopt a different crowd, or simply become disinterested as other things grow more important to them, like family or personal wealth.

Gradually these lukewarm crowd members become hypocrites, paying lip service to the crowd’s truth and its obsession but no longer behaving in accordance with its dictates in their own lives. Then they become disinterested and dismissive. Following which they start to oppose it, either quietly or loudly.

Authors

  • Gigi Foster, senior scholar of Brownstone Institute, is a Professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales, having joined UNSW in 2009 after six years at the University of South Australia.

  • Michael Baker has a BA (Economics) from the University of Western Australia. He is an independent economic consultant and freelance journalist with a background in policy research.

  • Paul Frijters is a Professor of Wellbeing Economics at the London School of Economics: from 2016 through November 2019 at the Center for Economic Performance, thereafter at the Department of Social Policy

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