by Leon Tong
In our line of work creating digital platforms for very large audiences, it is important to understand how groups of people interact and engage.
This means researching and answering questions such as:
- Why do people join groups?
- What motivates a group or team?
- What drives a group to take action?
Academics and scholars have been writing about these questions for many centuries. Fields such as social psychology, evolutionary biology and organisational behaviour provide answers from different but overlapping perspectives.
The Era of the Crowd
In 1895, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon, published La Psychologie des Foules—translated into English a year later as: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
He wrote at a time which he christened “The Era of the Crowd”. Up until the 19th century, power had resided with an elite minority—but this was beginning to change. Indeed in his native France, the fallout from the revolution of 1789 had not yet settled. However, he argued that the crowd was, on balance, not a force for good. He also described how groups are influenced and persuaded.
The interesting aspect is that many of the techniques described in his book are used in marketing, advertising and political campaigns to this very day. Indeed it is well documented that a number of influential figures in the 20th century studied Le Bon in depth. Next time you read or watch an advertisement or listen to a political broadcast see if you can spot any of these following techniques.
Techniques to Persuade the Masses
The main techniques to persuade a crowd are:
- ill-defined words
- but not reasoning or logic
Affirmation — the declaration that something is true—is a tool employed extensively by leaders of crowds. This is true for religion, politics, finance, commerce and possibly every other field that deals with mass communication. One never hears “This might be the best product on the market”—it is presented concisely as fact, or rather as a “truth”: “Ours is the number one product on the market”.
And note that affirmation—kept free of all reasoning and all proof—will make an idea enter the minds of crowds. To persuade a crowd, one does not need (lengthy) proof or explanation. Save that for your one-to-one debate.
Crowds want clear and simple “truths”.
Affirmation, however, has no real influence unless it is constantly repeated, and so far as possible in the same terms. It was Napoleon who said that there is only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition.
The thing affirmed comes by repetition to fix itself in the mind in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated truth.
The “mad men” of advertising have long known the power of repetition. This psychological principle is precisely what makes advertising so successful—repeat the same message often enough and before long it has entered a part of the brain that incites action. And what is more, the brain will recall the message as a “truth” or “fact” because it can no longer remember otherwise!
Contagion occurs when repetition begins to spread widely across the group: ”It is by examples not by arguments that crowds are guided”. Therefore for contagion to occur the meme needs to be easily demonstrated and easily replicated.
This is what powers memes and viral marketing. Digital technology only assists and enhances a basic principle that is deeply hard-wired within our brains. From fashion to fads and mass political movements, contagion is the pinnacle that many communicators are searching for.
Even in Le Bon’s time it was not necessary for individuals of the group/crowd to be physically in the same place for contagion to occur. He cited the example of the Paris revolution of 1848 which spread across Europe and disrupted many a monarchy.
This has far-reaching benefits for digital communication. The most fundamental and powerful principles for persuading a crowd are not only assisted but accelerated by digital technology.
No crowd wants to hear “Our idea is slightly better than the others” or “This car goes a little bit faster”. Crowds want to hear extremes and excesses. They are motivated and excited by it.
Exaggeration—excessive sentiments and affirmations—may be slightly off-putting to the individual, but it is what sways the crowd. Almost every famous orator has put this technique to good effect: from Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” to Mahatma Gandhi’s “There is no salvation for India”, from Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” to John F. Kennedy’s “A new frontier” and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”.
All used bold, excessive sentiments to inspire and persuade the crowd.
Since time immemorial, the leaders of crowds have recognised the power of symbols. Every major religion uses symbols to communicate. The Roman Empire was especially fond of symbols—and this has been replicated through the ages by many aspiring empire builders.
The modern-day empires that use symbols to great effect are the big global brands. These multinational companies are richer than many countries in the world.
National flags and symbols of pride evoke extreme emotion—good and bad. Symbols—logos, branding, clothing, accessories—are also indicators of a particular “in-group”. If you want to be part of “our group” you need to dress like us, talk like us, and use the same products.
It is through a process of affirmation, repetition, and contagion that these symbols take on a greater meaning.
Simon Sinek’s “Start with why?” is a great TED talk which explains the distinction between “how” words and “why” words perfectly. But when talking to many, the choice of words you use impacts how influential you are. Words which are more conceptual and vague—what Le Bon called “ill-defined”—are the very words which convey the greatest influence.
Not reasoning or logic
So the final point seems obvious once explained but initially is so counter-intuitive! Why would I not try and persuade the whole organisation with my well-reasoned reasoning and logic?
But this logic is lost on the crowd.
What they want is simple, emotive statements.
Next time you listen to a public figure speak—see if you can identify any of the tools Le Bon wrote about. Do they use exaggeration, affirmation or repetition? Or analyse famous speeches from the past. Also look at how branding and advertising use LeBon’s techniques.
These principles are not just centuries old but go back millennia. These principles continue to apply to digital and software design.
Technology is not primarily what defines how we interact it. It is our very hard-wired brains that define which technology succeeds.
If you are looking for clues as to what makes a successful digital platform the psychology of the crowd is a good place to start…
- Le Bon, G., La psychologie des foules (The Crowd a study of the popular Mind, courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
- Ickes,W. and Decety,J., The Social Neuroscience of Empathy.
- Surowiecki, J., The Wisdom of Crowds.
- Shirky, C., Here Comes Everybody.
- Dunbar, R., How many friends does one person need?
- Earls, M., Herd, How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature
- Brown, R., Group Processes
- Forsyth, D.R., Group Dynamics
- Williams, H., Great Speeches of our time
- Leith, S., You talkin’ to me?
- Jung, C., Man and his Symbols
- Sinek, S., “Start with why?”
- Pankhurst, E., “Freedom or Death”
- Gandhi. M., “There is no salvation for India”
- Churchill, W., “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”
- Kennedy, J. F., “A new frontier”
- Luther King, M., “I have a dream”