The Madness of Crowds

The impact of COVID-19 is hitting home and (most) people are taking it seriously. That’s good, but there is also a madness of crowds at…

The impact of COVID-19 is hitting home, and (most) people are taking it seriously. That’s good, but there is also a madness of crowds at work.

Nineteenth-Century French polymath Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon once wrote;

“Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a group puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation”.

Walter Lippmann added in 1922;

“For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture”.

In social psychology, the uniform and collective behaviour of crowds acting in accordance or discordance to social norms can include fads, fashion trends, social movements, cults, and contagious expressions of enthusiasm, fear, anxiety, and hostility.

This collective behaviour is usually a somewhat mild affair and can be observed without concern for people's lives or the threat to civilised society. But sometimes, it becomes bizarre or even dangerous.

Consider the tulip-mania that swept Europe in the 1600s, where people gave up entire fortunes to own worthless tulip bulbs. Or pick any stock market crash in history — the one that’s happening right now, for example. Or worse, the Nazi movement of 1930s Germany.

Gustave Le Bon said that crowd mentality is a contagion. When people join a psychological crowd, they often sacrifice personal interest, rationality, and decency favouring the collective interest.

This is happening now, today, and its effects are sharp.

Our Minds Are Slow To Change

I’m sitting at my desk acutely aware, now in particular, of my biases towards the momentum of established thinking.

Specifically, I’m speaking of COVID-19.

Initially, I wasn’t buying it. It was over there in China. It’s the flu, so what? We’ll get over it. Loads of people die from the flu, so how is this any different? This is just another one of those bird-flu things, I thought.

The boy was calling wolf.

My feeling on COVID-19 was that it was being hyped out of proportion by over-anxious social do-gooders. At one extreme, it still is, in fact, even more so now than before the escalation of measures to counter its advance here in Ireland.

A wave of messages is bombarding my WhatsApp groups and Facebook feed, all of which, it should be said, are being sent with the best of intentions. Although some messages may have been from genuine sources to me, others were misleading and even downright false.

People are being caught in the hype and hysteria on a global scale.

They’re going crazy in supermarkets buying up all the toilet roll, for fuck’s sake! What’s that about?

Hysterical people are jumping all over any information that supports their fear-based views of the virus, and that fear is spreading faster than the virus itself. Instead of relying on trusted and established sources, they pass on pure rubbish as truth and spread misinformation and fear.

I’m Going To Official Sources Only

It took perhaps a week for it to sink in for me, and today I know that this issue is serious. In particular for those with weakened immune systems and the elderly.

It seems to me that people are either;

(a) Not taking the potential harm of this virus seriously, or,

(b) Taking the fear factor to the total max.

So what should we do to avoid the hype and stay focused on what matters?

In this particular situation, I have got to trust others. I like to do my own research, but on this occasion, I’m not in a position to get right to the heart of the matter.

Even though I might not always believe what I hear from these guys, The World Health Organisation seems to me to be the appropriate source to go with. Given the rate of spread of this virus in Italy, Spain, Germany and other European countries, I’d be a fool to think that a border, be it land or sea, will prevent it from doing the same here.

Cases of the virus are increasing exponentially. Look how fast this thing is spreading.

Graph of the epidemic curve 15th March 2020 taken from the Covid-19 daily update courtesy of WHO.

Graph of the epidemic curve 15th March 2020 taken from the COVID-19 daily update courtesy of WHO.

On a local level, I have to trust the HSE. Here’s their advice to individuals regarding the containment of the virus.

By the HSE: How to prevent spread of COVID-19

Issued by the HSE: How to prevent the spread of COVID-19

I’m not panicking. I don’t do panic.

Instead, I class my approach as sensible given the evidence. I’m not a high-risk person, and neither is my wife or children, but we could be carriers. So we have a responsibility, and I think it’s more than prudent to follow through on what we’re being asked to do by the health services.

However, I understand that some people are not on board. You see, there is a particular logic in false beliefs.

You might believe there is no threat, or you might believe there is a greater threat than there is. The key to sensible action being the openness of mind to assume yourself wrong and take a course of action that seems sensible given the worst-case scenario.

Now, I understand you can read that any way you want. But the facts are there, and there is a precedent. So if you consume information from reliable sources instead of a third, fourth, fifth hand from social media, you’ll likely make the right move.

In sum, I don’t regard myself as a “good citizen”. In fact, I recoil at the idea, if I’m honest.

But this is different.

It took a week or two of persistent messaging from the government and a little research on my part to shift the momentum of my thought. But now I’m convinced that this is a real problem. Now, I am on board.

At the same time, there are people in needless panic, which can cause big problems. So let’s try to stay sober on this one, but act sensibly and avoid both COVID-19 and the virus of idiotic crowd mentality.