Mad crowds disease

Mobs, herds, battalions, minions, spectators: these are groups to whom we readily ascribe a mood – celebratory, triumphant, ugly, angry, battle-weary, hysterical, frenzied, supportive, enthusiastic, docile.

I confess to being moved by the presence of crowds on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh as the Olympic torch relay passed by. I had stumbled across different segments of the route while driving through the Scottish countryside in the Spring. Signage indicated the relay route. We’d seen the relay on tv. There was the build up; the waiting. Then the confirmation that the torch, flame, relay, bus, entourage, really does exist.

Crowd of people lining the street with cameras. the torch bearer is barely visible.

The madness of crowds

Commentators point out how readily we get caught up in the mood of the crowd. In the 1850s, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay wrote

We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

I interpret the book in which this passage appears (Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds) as a polemic in praise of the individual against the collective. Collectives are error-prone, superficial, and prone to delusion.

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, and one by one.

This sentiment runs counter to the current enthusiasm for crowd-sourcing, producer-consumers co-creation, digital social media, Internet democracy … and “Olympic values.”

Is madness a mood, or just a pejorative way of describing any crowd-sourced feeling? Perhaps it indicates a loss of control to the inevitable power that resides in large numbers.

What is a mood anyway? In his detailed treatise on Ethics, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) dealt with what he termed affectus. This is the means by which “the power of action of the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained.”

Translators substitute for affectus the word emotion, which we are inclined to think of as an internal state of mind, but it also implies movement and disturbance — an inclination in fact, as if sliding down a plane, or leaning in a particular direction. If there’s no object, cause or identifiable focus for the affectus then we call it a mood.

Mood is an intensity, a booster, with unspecific object, that increases the tendency to act in some way, or that requires effort to resist. It’s obvious as a crowd phenomenon. Mood is the power surge that compels and strengthens the actions of the people in the crowd and those watching.

What moves us?

How am I moved by a crowd? I can think of several options.

  • Crowds are a way of transmitting, amplifying and circulating a mood. So I adopt or catch a mood and its effects, as if a contagion, or perhaps the mood effect is a signal in a sophisticated network relay.
  • When it fits the mood then it’s ok for me to flail my arms around with a digital camera, clap or perform other actions more extreme and in keeping with the crowd. Moods provide permission and encouragement to act in certain ways.
  • In so far as I’m moved, then the crowd is the focus. Solidarity, whether the experience is direct or vicarious, can touch us. I, among others, have been surprised by my own response to spectacles, in which there are crowds, that focus on objects about which I am ordinarily indifferent: royal weddings, state funerals, opening ceremonies — even when experienced through television.

When caught up in the mood of the crowd am I in fact moved by whatever it is that moves the crowd, or moved by the crowd?


  • Mackay, Charles. 2008. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Gutenberg. First published in 1852.
  • Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Spinoza, Baruch. 1997. Ethics. Trans. A. Boyle, and G. H. R. Parkinson. London: Everyman. First published in Latin in 1677.
  • Surowiecki, James. 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. New York: Anchor Books.

On the subject of mood also see Ambience on demand, After affects, Kim Jong-Il orz, and E-motion.

Cows feeding at a trough behind wire fence; sign saying "secret bunker"Pastoral scene, animals acting like Olympic athletes, farmers say, "Go and explain to them that all they'll have to do is act normally."


  1. Mad Crowds Disease:

    There are several examples in the recent history of Britain and the rest of the world that show two different but essentially similar examples of the mad crowd.

    1) The rioting in the summer of 2011.

    Somehow a peaceful march to protest against the killing of a young inner city teenager turned into mass rioting that spread across the country. The initial protest was held in London but other cities such as manchester were also affected. This is a perfect example of Mad Crowd Disease.

    2) The fervour and emotion seen through the current US presidential elections. Such emotional outpourings would never happen in Britian, as a country we are too reserved for that (can you imagine David Cameron playing the crowd in a stadium with the same rockstar like energy as Barak Obama?).

    What is it that these very different crowds have in common? The answer is that they have both gone crazy (not a pc word but it’s the most concise I can come up with at the moment). Crazy seems like a strong word but isn’t it feesable to belive that crazy is just the self but exaggerated. The person who cannot leave their room because of paranoia could be called “crazy” when in reality everyone has some small bit of paranoia inside them, when it is taken to the extreme that is where madness lies.

    In the London riots what the crowd were feeling in general was a sense that there was something not right in the country and that anger bubbled over into mass rioting. The feeling that there is something wrong with the state of affairs is something most people have but when it is allowed to boil over it becomes crazy.

    In the US presidential race many normal American who would happily give you a very considered argument based on their own political opinions have been reduced to screaming approval when their chosen candidate merely greets them, again, this is the exaggeration of their normal political alliance.

    So, taking “madness” or “craziness to be an extreme exaggeration of pr- existing feeling we can also apply it to crowds. In a crowd setting that exaggeration once again becomes enhanced and very briefly I will list three possible reasons for this.

    1) the anonymity of the crowd.

    During the London riots shops and homes were looted and torched. In many cases this was done by people with good educations and no previous criminal convictions. The only reason I can think of for this first time offending is people thought they could get away with it because they would not stand out in such a large crowd, its a pack mentality. The same applies for shouting and screaming for a political candidate, no one would do it if they weren’t part of a large number of people doing it, it would be embarrassing.

    2) The lack of a clear leader.

    During the London riots there was no one in charge, no timetable for destruction and no governing body to say how that destruction would happen, this is why the crows descended into anarchy. All it took was for one person to start looting and burning and the others followed leading to the destruction of homes and business’ (including the depository for many rare vynls) . I am aware this in direct contrast to the next point.

    3) A very clear leader

    The US presidential race has thrown up two men into the position of rockstars for the duration of the campaign. The crowd, needing a leader, have one conveniently given to them and given in flamboyant fashion. I’m pretty sure if president Obama asked the members at his rally’s to bark in unison they probably would, it would be madness outside of the crowd but in it it would not seem so ridiculous

    Mad Crowd Disease: Causes; exaggeration of already held feelings combined with the anonymity of the crowd and stoked by either a lack of a leader or fueled by a very clearly assigned leader.

    Symptoms: People behaving in ways they never would if they were on their own

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