On Group Psychology

As Freud demonstrated, the relation between individual psychology and group psychology is a paradoxical one, in the sense that while the latter extinguishes the former, the former ends up shaping the latter to a certain extent. In turn, there is the individual as part of a group on one hand, and there is the individual as a human being in isolation on the other hand. 

And as Freud noted, the individual as part of a group picks up “new characteristics” which he or she did not possess in isolation. Moreover, the “new characteristics” which an individual picks up as part of a group are largely based on emotion, impulse, and irrationality, whereas an individual in isolation inclines more towards reason, self-interest, and thoughtfulness. And as Gustave Le Bon wrote:

“Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized group, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings.’

Thus, what the individual essentially sacrifices by being part of a group is a higher level of intellect and thought which is quite discernible and obvious for the individual once or she is part of a group. As Freud wrote: “He then dwells especially upon the lowering in intellectual ability which an individual experiences when he becomes merged in a group.” But intellect and thought are not the only things which an individual sacrifices by being part of a group. As Le Bon argued, the individual must also sacrifice their autonomy, freedom, individual personality, and individual will by being part of a group:

“We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

And while the individual in isolation is guided largely by reason and self-discovered truths, the group is led largely by hysteria and illusion. As Nietzsche said: “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” And as Freud wrote:

“[Groups] have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.”

Ultimately, what brings an individual together with a group is not necessarily a desire for reason or truth, given that reason and truth are better sought by the individual in a state of isolation and solitude. Rather, the deciding factors in solidifying an isolated individual’s inclusion into a group is a “common impulse” with the group that is determined largely by circumstances and situation, in addition to a “similar emotional bias” which is determined largely by the individual’s desire to “remain in harmony with the many.” 

These emotions and desires on the part of the isolated individual in turn have a “reciprocal effect” on the group, and as a result, the group then fosters the emotion and desire to adopt the characteristics of the individual. Thus, it follows that “the tendency towards the formation of groups is biologically a continuation of the multicellular character of all the higher organisms.” Without the influence of the isolated individual on the group, the group amounts merely to “a revival of the primal horde” which exhibits the raw instincts of primitive peoples and the unfiltered impulses of the unconscious mind, as Freud suggested. 

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