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Gustave Le Bon

Gustave Le Bon
Picture of Gustave Le Bon, by Truchelut, 1888
Born Charles-Marie-Gustave Le Bon
(1841-05-07)7 May 1841
Died 13 December 1931(1931-12-13) (aged 90)
Nationality French
Fields Social psychology
Known for Crowd psychology

Gustave Le Bon (French: ; 7 May 1841 – 13 December 1931) was a French social psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, inventor, and amateur physicist. He is best known for his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. His writings incorporate theories of national traits, racial and male superiority, herd behavior and crowd psychology.

Le Bon began his writing career working in the new field of anthropology. In the 1870s he invented a pocket cephalometer, or as he called it, a "Compass of Coordinates", which was an instrument that allowed one to quickly measure the head's various angles, diameters, and profiles. In effect, the instrument was able to reproduce the measurements of any 3-D solid figure. Because it was small and portable the device was easily incorporated into the research programs of anthropologists. Le Bon himself, in 1881, used the cephalometer to measure the heads of 50 inhabitants of the remote Tatras Mountains region of southern Poland. His paper, "The Pocket Cephalometer, or Compass of Coordinates" is written in the style of a user's manual, and stands as an important historical document that details how 19th-century anthropologists initially practiced their science.


  • Life 1
  • Influence 2
  • Controversy 3
  • Selected works 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Le Bon was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, France (near Chartres), and died in Marnes-la-Coquette. He studied medicine and toured Europe, Asia, and North Africa during the 1860s to 1880s while writing about archeology and anthropology, making money from the design of scientific apparatus. His first great success was the publication of Les Lois psychologiques de l'évolution des peuples (1894); English edition The Psychology of Peoples. His best selling work was La psychologie des foules (1895); English edition The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896).

In 1902, Le Bon began a series of weekly luncheons (les déjeuners du mercredi) to which prominent people of many professions were invited to discuss topical issues. The strength of his personal networks is apparent from the guest list: participants included Henri and Raymond Poincaré (cousins, physicist and President of France respectively), Paul Valéry and Henri Bergson.


Le Bon was not the first sociologist to diagnose his society and discover a new phenomenon: 'The Crowd'.[1] Other contemporary or ‘first generation’ theorists of crowd behavior included: the French sociologist social action. “The first debate in crowd psychology was actually between two criminologists, Scipio Sighele and Gabriel Tarde, concerning how to determine and assign criminal responsibility within a crowd and hence who to arrest (Sighele, 1892; Tarde 1890, 1892, 1901).” [2]

Scipio Sighele’s book, La Folla Delinquente was published in Italian in 1891 and in French under the title, La Foule Criminelle, the same year. However, his book was not accessible to the German sociologist Georg Simmel until 1897, when the German edition appeared under the title Psychologie des Auflaufs und der Massenverbrechen. The English edition was published in 1894 as The Criminal Crowd.

Le Bon and France witnessed three major mass events: Dreyfus Affair. Each of these events galvanized a large segment of the population. Paris, in the 19th century, was one of the largest industrialized cities in Europe and was in the forefront of rising forces of anti-Semitism and far right politics. In particular, the German conquest of Alsace and Lorraine had fueled nationalist and right-wing sentiments in the country. It is in this context that Le Bon creates his concept of 'The Crowd.’

This new entity that emerges from incorporating the assembled population not only forms a new body but also forms a collective “unconsciousness.” As a crowd gathers together and coalesces there is a ”magnetic influence given out by the crowd or from some other cause of which we are ignorant” that transmutes every individual’s behavior until it becomes governed by the ’group mind'. This model treats 'The Crowd' as a unit in its composition and robs every individual member of their opinions, values and beliefs. As he says in one of his more pithy statements, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will”.

Le Bon detailed three key processes that create ‘The Crowd’: Anonymity, Contagion and Suggestibility. Anonymity provides to rational individuals a feeling of invincibility and the loss of personal responsibility. An individual becomes primitive, unreasoning, and emotional. This lack of self-restraint allows individuals to ‘yield to instincts’ and to accept the instinctual drives of their 'racial unconscious'. For Le Bon this means that the crowd inverts Darwin’s law of evolution and becomes atavistic or regressive, proving Ernst Haeckel's embryological theory: "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". Contagion refers to the spread in the crowd of particular behaviors (e.g. rioter's smashing windows) where individuals sacrifice their personal interest for the collective interest. Suggestibility is the mechanism through which the contagion is achieved. As the crowd coalesces into a singular mind suggestions made by strong voices in the crowd create a space for the ‘racial unconscious’ to come to the forefront and guide its behavior. At this stage ‘The Crowd’ becomes homogeneous and malleable to suggestions from its strongest members. “The leaders we speak of," says Le Bon, "are usually men of action rather than of words. They are not gifted with keen foresight... They are especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.

A backlash against Le Bon’s conception of a ‘collective mind’ led other social scientists to put forward the opposite viewpoint that crowd behavior is the consequence of the individuals that compose it. Floyd Allport was in the vanguard of this attack, asserting that there is no such thing as a ‘group mind’ and that no crowd is more than the aggregate of its individual responses. He considered any reference to a mind that was separate from the psych of individuals as a meaningless abstraction or even as “a babble of tongues" (Allport, 1933), and in his seminal text on social psychology (Allport, 1924) he asserted, “there is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals” (p. 4).

University of Wisconsin-Madison has claimed that fascist theories of leadership that emerged during the 1920s owed much to Le Bon's theories of crowd psychology. Adolf Hitler is known to have read The Crowd[3] and in his Mein Kampf he drew largely on the propaganda techniques proposed by Le Bon.[4] Benito Mussolini also made a careful study of Le Bon's crowd psychology work, frequently rereading the book.[5]

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, was influenced by Le Bon and Trotter. In his famous book Propaganda, he declared that a major feature of democracy was the manipulation of the mass mind by media and advertising. Theodore Roosevelt, as well as many other American progressives in the early 20th century, were also deeply affected by Le Bon's writings.[6]

Just prior to World War I Wilfred Trotter, a surgeon of University College Hospital, London introduced Wilfred Bion, an employee at the same hospital, to Le Bon's writings and Sigmund Freud's work Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (1921; English translation Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1922). Trotter's book, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War forms the basis for the research of both Wilfred Bion and Ernest Jones who established what would be called group psychology. Their association with the Tavistock Institute also places them in the new field of group dynamics. During the first half of the twentieth century Le Bon's writings were used by media researchers such as Hadley Cantril and Herbert Blumer to describe the reactions of subordinate groups to media.


Le Bon's physical theories generated some mild controversy in the physics community. In 1896 he reported observing a new kind of radiation, which he termed "black light".[7] Not the same as what people nowadays call black light, its existence was never confirmed and it is now generally understood to be non-existent.[8] His theory of the nature of matter and energy was expanded upon in his book The Evolution of Matter. The book was popular in France, going through 12 editions. The major premise of the book is matter is an inherently unstable substance and slowly transforms into luminiferous ether. One major supporter was Henri Poincaré,[9] however by 1900 physicists had rejected his formulation.

In 1879, Gustave Le Bon put forth many essentialist arguments to promote negative views of women, in particular that “there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to gorillas than to the most developed male brains”, that “they represent inferior forms of human evolution” and that “they excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.” He concluded that it would be dangerous to provide the same education to girls as boys.[10]

Selected works

  • Anatomical & Mathematical Researches into the Laws of the Variations of Brain Volume & Their Relation to Intelligence (1879)
    • This paper received an award from both the French Academy of Sciences and the Anthropology Society of Paris.
  • The Pocket Cephalometer, or Compass of Coordinates
  • Experimental Researches on the Variations of the Volume of the Brain and Skull (1878)
    • In this 1878 presentation to the Anthropology Society of Paris, Dr. Gustave Le Bon summarizes his extensive research on the volume of the brain and skull. The major findings of his study are: (1) "what constitutes the superiority of one race over another is that the superior race contains many more voluminous skulls than the inferior race;” (2) "comparing the largest skulls belonging to the superior races to the largest skulls of the inferior races, the difference amounts to the enormous number of 400 cubic centimeters;" (3) "the difference existing between the brain weight of a man and woman progressively increases as a people's level of civilization rises." These conclusions were based on patterns contained in the measurements he obtained by grouping data in a statistical progressive series.
  • L'Homme et les Sociétés (1881); Man and Society
  • The Study of Races and Present-day Anthropology (1881)
    • In this 1881 treatise Dr. Gustave Le Bon strongly criticizes his fellow anthropologists for merely calculating the averages of the various craniological measurements in their data set. Such "averages are fictitious values that provide a totally false idea of the elements that have served to constitute them," he says. Instead, he urges his fellow scientists to analyze their data by utilizing a series statistical method which will accurately determine the intelligence level of a race. Le Bon concludes the paper with two claims, (1) "skull volume directly corresponds with intelligence," and (2) "the superior race contains a certain number of quite voluminous skulls, whereas the inferior race does not.
  • On the Applications of Photography to Anthropology with Respect to the Photographs Taken of the Fuegians Housed at the Jardin d'Acclimatation (1881)
    • In this November 17, 1881 presentation to the Anthropology Society of Paris, Dr. Gustave Le Bon describes several photographs that he took of individuals from Tierra del Fuego who were housed at the time at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris. Employing a new photography method, which involved the use of a dry emulsion of gelatino-silver bromide, Le Bon was "able to operate in an instantaneous manner." He comments that his Fuegian subjects were, "caught in the most diverse, but at the same time the most natural, poses." Gustave Le Bon presented this paper as a helpful introduction to the much longer presentation by Dr. Leonce Manouvrier, who had taken detailed measurements of 50 different body parts (foot length, etc.) on the same Tierra del Fuegian individuals Le Bon had photographed. See, "The Fuegians of the Jardin d'Acclimatation" by Leonce Manouvrier).
  • La Civilisation des Arabes (1884); The World of Islamic Civilization (1974)
  • Applications of Psychology to the Classification of Races (1886)
    • In this 1886 paper Dr. Gustave Le Bon analyzes the various races of India from a psychological point of view. This viewpoint represents a dramatic change in Le Bon’s approach to anthropology. After his departure from anthropology it appears that he took up the idea that a race can be best defined by its psychological qualities, rather than by its physical characteristics. In this study he classifies the peoples of India into three large groups, the largest of which is composed of the Hindus. He has two major conclusions: (1) the psychological qualities of the Hindus are submissiveness, absence of energy, fatalism, and lack of precision in thought; and (2) the mass of the Hindu population is intellectually equal to Europeans. Although he qualifies this finding with the remark that the "former, unlike the latter, does not possess a certain number of superior intellects." The paper is illustrated with reproduced photos to illuminate his findings.
  • Les Lois Psychologiques de l'Évolution des Peuples (1894); The Psychology of Peoples (1898)
  • La Psychologie des Foules (1895); The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896)
  • Psychologie du Socialisme (1896); The Psychology of Socialism (1899)
  • L'Évolution de la Matière (1905); The Evolution of Matter (1907)
  • L'Évolution des Forces (1907); The Evolution of Forces (1908)
  • La Révolution Française et la Psychologie des Révolutions (1912); The Psychology of Revolution (1913); The French Revolution and the Psychology of Revolution (1980).
  • Enseignements Psychologiques de la Guerre Européenne (1915); The Psychology of the Great War (1916)
  • Psychologie des Temps Nouveaux (1920); The World in Revolt (1921)
  • Le Déséquilibre du Monde (1923); The World Unbalanced (1924)


  • Barrows, Susanna. Distorting Mirrors – Visions of the Crowd in Late 19th Century France, New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1981.
  • Nye, Robert. The Origins of Crowd Psychology – Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic, London: Sage, 1975.
  • Jaap van Ginneken. "The Era of the Crowd – Le Bon, Psychopathology and Suggestion". Ch. 4 in JvG, Crowds, Psychology and Politics 1871–1899, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Jaap van Ginneken. "The Lonely Hero in French Historiography". Appendix in JvG, Mass Movements, Apeldoorn (Neth.): Spinhuis, 2007.

See also


  1. ^ McClelland, J. S. (2010). "Crowd Theory Make its Way in the World: the Le Bon Phenomenon," in The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti, Routledge, pp. 151-181.
  2. ^ Reicher, Stephen (2003). “The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics”, in Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes, ed. Michael A. Hogg & R. Scott Tindale. Blackwell Publishers. Malden, Mass. p. 185.
  3. ^ Eley, Geoff; Jan Palmowski (2008). Citizenship and National Identity in Twentieth-century Germany, Stanford University Press, p. 284.
  4. ^ Gonen, Jay Y. (2013). The Roots of Nazi Psychology: Hitler's Utopian Barbarism, University Press of Kentucky, p. 92.
  5. ^ Ginneken, Jaap van (1992). Crowds, Psychology, and Politics, 1871-1899, Cambridge University Press, p. 186.
  6. ^ p. 63 ff., Stuart Ewen, PR!: A Social History of Spin, New York: Basic Books, 1996.
  7. ^ Nye, Mary Jo. (1974). "Gustave Le Bon’s Black Light: A Study in Physics and Philosophy in France at the Turn of the Century," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Vol. 4., pp. 163-195.
  8. ^ Kragh, Helge (1999). Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press): 11–12.
  9. ^ Crosland, Maurice (2002). Science Under Control: The French Academy of Sciences 1795-1914, Cambridge University Press, p. 347.
  10. ^ Stephen Jay Gould (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton. p. 104–105.

External links

  • Works by Gustave Le Bon at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Gustave Le Bon at Internet Archive
  • Gustave Le Bon's works: Page on Gustave Le Bon with his works available in French and in English
  • Les Classiques des Sciences Sociales: Le Bon
  • Ultima Verba
  • (PDF)The CrowdThe complete English text to
  • English translation of 'The Psychology of Socialism' (PDF)
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