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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUGGESTION

A RESEARCH INTO THE SUBCONSCIOUS NATURE OF MAN AND SOCIETY

Boris Sidis, Ph.D.

© 1898

New York: D. Appleton and Company

 

PART III

SOCIETY

 

CHAPTER XXVII

SOCIAL SUGGESTIBILITY

        SUGGESTIBILITY is a fundamental attribute of man's nature. We must therefore expect that man, in his social capacity, will display this general property; and so do we actually find the case to be. What is required is only the condition to bring about a disaggregation in the social consciousness. This disaggregation may either be fleeting, unstable―then the type of suggestibility is that of the normal one; or it may become stable―then the suggestibility is of the abnormal type. The one is the suggestibility of the crowd, the other that of the mob. In the mob direct suggestion is effective, in the crowd indirect suggestion. The clever stump orator, the politician, the preacher, fix the attention of their listeners on themselves, interesting them in the "subject." They as a rule distract the attention of the crowd by their stories, frequently giving the suggestion in some indirect and striking way, winding up the long yarn by a climax requiring the immediate execution of the suggested act. Out of the infinite number of cases, I take the first that comes to my hand:    On August 11, 1895, at Old Orchard, Me., a camp meeting was held. The purpose was to raise a collection for the evangelization of the world. The preacher gave his suggestions in the following way: 

        "The most impressive memory I have of foreign lands is the crowds, the billows of lost humanity dashing ceaselessly on the shores of eternity. . . . How desperate and unloved they are―no joy, no spring, no song in their religion! I once heard a Chinaman tell why he was a Christian. It seemed to him that he was down in a deep pit, with no means to get out. [Story.] Have you wept on a lost world as Jesus wept? If not, woe unto you. Your religion is but a dream and a fancy. We find Christ testing his disciples. Shall he make them his partners? Beloved, he is testing you to-day. [Indirect suggestion.] He could convert one thousand millionaires, but he is giving us a chance. [Suggestion more direct than before.] Have we faith enough? [A discourse on faith follows here.] God can not bring about great things without faith. I believe the coming of Jesus will be brought about by one who believes strongly in it. . . . Beloved, if you are going to give grandly for God you have got faith. [The suggestion is still more direct.] The lad with the five loaves and the two small fishes [story]―when it was over the little fellow did not lose his buns; there were twelve baskets over. . . . Oh, beloved, how it will come back! . . . Some day the King of kings will call you and give you a kingdom of glory, and just for trusting him a little! What you give to-day is a great investment. . . . Some day God will let us know how much better he can invest our treasures than we ourselves." The suggestion was effective. Money poured in from all sides, contributions ran from hundreds into thousands, into tens of thousands. The crowd contributed as much as seventy thousand dollars.

        A disaggregation of consciousness is easily effected in the crowd. Some of the conditions of suggestibility work in the crowd with great power and on a large scale. The social psychical scalpels are big, powerful; their edges are extremely keen, and they cut sure and deep. If anything gives us a strong sense of our individuality, it is surely our voluntary movements. We may say that the individual self grows and expands with the increase of variety and intensity of its voluntary activity; and conversely, the life of the individual self sinks, shrinks with the decrease of variety and intensity of voluntary movements. We find, accordingly, that the condition of limitation of voluntary movements is of great importance in suggestibility in general, and this condition is of the more importance since it, in fact, can bring about a narrowing down of the field of consciousness with the conditions consequent on that contraction―all favourable to suggestibility. Now nowhere else, except perhaps in solitary confinement, are the voluntary movements of men so limited as they are in the crowd; and the larger the crowd is the greater is this limitation, the lower sinks the individual self. Intensity of personality is in inverse proportion to the number of aggregated men. This law holds true not only in the case of crowds, but also in the case of highly organized masses. Large, massive social organisms produce, as a rule, very small persons. Great men are not to be found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, but rather in the diminutive communities of ancient Greece and Judea. 

        This condition of limitation of voluntary movements is one of the prime conditions that help to bring about a deep, a more or less lasting dissociation in the consciousness of the crowd―the crowd passes into the mob-state. A large gathering on account of the cramping of voluntary movements easily falls into a state of abnormal suggestibility, and is easily moved by a ringleader or hero. Large assemblies carry within themselves the germs of the possible mob. The crowd contains within itself all the elements and conditions favourable to a disaggregation of consciousness. What is required is only that an interesting object, or that some sudden violent impressions should strongly fix the attention of the crowd, and plunge it into that state in which the waking personality is shorn of its dignity and power, and the naked subwaking self alone remains face to face with the external environment. 

        Besides limitation of voluntary movements and contraction of the field of consciousness, there are also present in the crowd, the matrix of the mob, the conditions of monotony and inhibition. When the preacher, the politician, the stump orator, the ringleader, the hero gains the ear of the crowd, an ominous silence sets in, a silence frequently characterized as "awful." The crowd is in a state of overstrained expectation; with suspended breath it watches the hero or the interesting, all-absorbing object. Disturbing impressions are excluded, put down, driven away by main force. So great is the silence induced in the fascinated crowd, that very frequently the buzzing of a fly, or even the drop of a pin, can be distinctly heard. All interfering impressions and ideas are inhibited. The crowd is entranced, and rapidly merges into the mob-state.

        The great novelist Count Tolstoy gives the following characteristic description of a crowd passing into the entranced condition of the mob: "The crowd remained silent, and pressed on one another closer and closer. To bear the pressure of one another, to breathe in this stifling, contagious atmosphere, not to have the power to stir, and to expect something unknown, incomprehensible, and terrible, became intolerable. Those who were in the front, who saw and heard everything that took place, all those stood with eyes full of fright, widely dilated, with open mouths; and straining their whole strength, they kept on their backs the pressure of those behind them."1      

        The following concrete cases taken from American life will perhaps show clearly the factors that work in the entrancement of the crowd, and will also disclose the disaggregation of consciousness effected in the popular mind.

       One of the American newspapers gives the following sensational but interesting account of feminine crowds entranced by Paderewski. There is a chatter, a rustling of programmes, a waving of fans, a nodding of feathers, a general air of expectancy, and the lights are lowered. A hush. All eyes are turned to a small door leading on to the stage; it is opened. Paderewski enters. . . . A storm of applause greets him, . . . but after it comes a tremulous hush and a prolonged sigh, . . . created by the long, deep inhalation of upward of three thousand women. . . . Paderewski is at the piano. . . . Thousands of eyes watch every commonplace movement [of his] through opera glasses with an intensity painful to observe. He the idol, they the idolators. . . . Toward the end of the performance the most decorous women seem to abandon themselves to the influence. . . . There are sighs, sobs, the tight clinching of the palms, the bowing of the head. Fervid exclamations: 'He is my master!' are heard in the feminine mob." In this highly sensational report the paper unconsciously describes all the conditions requisite to effect a disaggregation of consciousness.

        The conditions of crowd entrancement are clearly revealed in the following case:

        In 1895 a "modern Messiah," a "Man-Christ" by name of Francis Schlatter, appeared in this country. He worked miracles. People believed in his divine, supernatural power. Men, women, and children flocked to him from all sides, and Schlatter did cure many of them of "the ills of the flesh" by "mere laying on of hands," as the hypnotizer treats the entranced subject or the one he intends to entrance. A disaggregation of consciousness was easily effected in the manipulated crowd of believers, the subwaking reflex self emerged, and Schlatter's suggestions took effect. A reporter describes the scene as follows:

        "Men, women, and children, with the imprint of mental illness upon their faces were on all sides. . . . Every moment the crowd was augmented, . . . and soon the place was a sea of heads as far as the eye could see. [Limitation of voluntary movements.] . . . Then a sudden movement went through the assemblage, and even the faintest whisper was hushed. [Monotony, inhibition.] . . . Schlatter had come." [Concentration of attention.] The reporter, as the individual of the crowd, fell into the trance condition characteristic of the person in the mob. "As I approached him," writes the reporter, "I became possessed of a certain supernatural fear, which it was difficult to analyze. My faith in the man grew in spite of my reason." The waking, controlling, thinking, reasoning self began to waver, to lose its power, and the reflex, subwaking consciousness began to assert itself. "As he released my hands my soul acknowledged some power in this man that my mind and my brain (?) seemed to fight against. When he unclasped my hands I felt as though I could kneel at his feet and call him master."

        The suggestion given to the entranced crowd by the "master" spreads like wildfire. The given suggestion reverberates from individual to individual, gathers strength, and becomes so overwhelming as to drive the crowd into a fury of activity, into a frenzy of excitement. As the suggestions are taken by the mob and executed the wave of excitement rises higher and higher. Each fulfilled suggestion increases the emotion of the mob in volume and intensity. Each new attack is followed by a more violent paroxysm of furious demoniac frenzy. The mob is like an avalanche: the more it rolls the more menacing and dangerous it grows. The suggestion given by the hero, by the ringleader, by the master of the moment, is taken up by the crowd and is reflected and reverberated from man to man, until every soul is dizzied and every person is stunned. In the entranced crowd, in the mob, everyone influences and is influenced in his turn; every one suggests and is suggested to, and the surging billow of suggestion swells and rises until it reaches a formidable height.

        Suppose that the number of individuals in the crowd is 1,000, that the energy of the suggested idea in the "master" himself be represented by 50, and that only one half of it can be awakened in others; then the hero awakens an energy of 25 in every individual, who again in his or her turn awakens in everyone an energy of 12.5. The total energy aroused by the hero is equal to 25 X 1,000 = 25,000. The total energy of suggestion awakened by each individual in the crowd is equal to 12.5 X 1,000, or 12,500 (the hero being included, as he is, after all, but a part of the crowd). Since the number of individuals in the crowd is 1,000, we have the energy rising to as much as 12,500 X 1,000; adding to it the 25,000 produced by the ringleader, we have the total energy of suggestion amounting to 12,525,000 ! 2

        The mob energy grows faster than the increase of numbers. The mob spirit grows and expands with each fresh human increment. Like a cannibal it feeds on human beings. In my article A Study of the Mob 3 I point out that the mob has a self of its own; that the personal self is suppressed, swallowed up by it, so much so that when the latter comes once more to the light of day it is frequently horrified at the work, the crime, the mob self had committed; and that once the mob self is generated, or, truer to say, brought to the surface, it possesses a strong attractive power and a great capacity of assimilation. It attracts fresh individuals, breaks down their personal life, and quickly assimilates them; it effects in them a disaggregation of consciousness and assimilates the subwaking selves. Out of the subwaking selves the mob-self springs into being. The assimilated individual expresses nothing but the energy [of the] suggestion, the will of the entranced crowd; he enters fully into the spirit of the mob. This can be well illustrated by a curious incident describing the riots of the military colonists in Russia in 1831, taken from the memoirs of Panaev: 

        "While Sokolov was fighting hard for his life I saw a corporal lying on the piazza and crying bitterly. On my question, 'why do you cry?' he pointed in the direction of the mob and exclaimed, 'Oh, they do not kill a commander, but a father!' I told him that instead of it he should rather go to Sokolov's aid. He rose at once and ran to the help of his commander. A little later when I came with a few soldiers to Sokolov's help, I found the same corporal striking Sokolov with a club. 'Wretch, what are you doing? Have you not told me he was to you like a father?' To which he answered: 'It is such a time, your honor; all the people strike him; why should I keep quiet?' "

        To take another interesting example: During the Russian anti-Jewish riots in 1881 the city of Berditchev*, consisting mainly of Jewish inhabitants, suffered from Jewish mobs. One day a Jewish mob of about fifteen thousand men, armed with clubs, butchers' knives, and revolvers, marched through the streets to the railway station to meet the Katzapi.4 To the surprise of intelligent observers, many Christians were found to participate in this Jewish mob.

        An interesting case of this kind is brought by the Rev. H. C. Fish in his Handbook of Revivals: 

        "While a revival was in progress in a certain village a profane tavern keeper swore he would never be found among the fools who were running to the meetings. On hearing, however, of the pleasing mode of singing his curiosity was excited, and he said he did not know but he might go and hear the singing, but with an imprecation that he would never hear a word of the sermon. As soon as the hymn before the sermon was sung he leaned forward and secured both ears against the sermon with his forefingers. Happening to withdraw one of his forefingers, the words, 'he that hath ears to hear let him hear,' pronounced with great solemnity, entered the ear that was open and struck him with irresistible force. He kept his hand from returning to the ear, and, feeling an impression he had never known before, presently withdrew the other finger and hearkened with deep attention to the discourse which followed." The tavern keeper was fascinated, drawn into the mob of true believers, was converted, and, in the words of the Rev. H. C. Fish, "became truly pious."

        The power of suggestion possessed by the revival meeting is well brought out in another case related by the Rev. H. C. Fish: 5

        "An actress in one of the English provincial theatres was one day passing through the streets of the town when her attention was attracted by the sound of voices. Curiosity prompted her to look in at an open door. It was a social (revival) meeting, and at the moment of her observation they were singing: 

Depth of mercy! can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?

She stood motionless during a prayer which was offered. . . . The words of the hymn followed her. . . . The manager of the theatre called upon her one morning and requested her to sustain the principal character in a new play which was to be performed the next week. . . . She promised to appear. The character she assumed required her on her first entrance to sing a song, and when the curtain was drawn up the orchestra immediately began the accompaniment. But she stood as if lost in thought (she seemed to have fallen into a trance), and as one forgetting all around her and her own situation. The music ceased, but she did not sing, and, supposing her to be overcome by embarrassment, the band again commenced. A second time they paused for her to begin, but still she did not open her lips. A third time the air was played, and then with clasped hand and eyes suffused with tears she sang not the words of the song," but the verses suggested to her at the revival meeting:

Depth of mercy! can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?

        "The performance," the Rev. H. C. Fish naÔvely adds, "was suddenly ended."

        The extreme impulsiveness of the mob self is notorious. No sooner is a suggestion accepted, no matter how criminal, how inhuman it might be, than it is immediately realized, unless another suggestion more in accord with the general nature of suggestions in which the mob self was trained, interferes and deflects the energy of the mob in another direction. The following interesting case will perhaps best illustrate my meaning.

        On February 6, 1896, at Wichita Falls, Texas, a mob of several thousand men attacked the jail where two bank robbers were confined. The mob battered the jail doors and forcibly took possession of the two prisoners. The two men were taken to the bank which they attempted to rob the day before. An improvised scaffold was erected. The first impulse of the mob was to burn the prisoners. Roasting was the programme. This inquisitorial mode of execution "without shedding human blood" was by suggestion changed to hanging, the way of execution commonly in use in this country to inflict capital punishment, the way of murder common to all American lynching mobs.

        The consciousness of the mob is reflex in its nature. In the entranced crowd, in the mob, social consciousness is disaggregated, thus exposing to the direct influence of the environment the reflex consciousness of the social subwaking self. The subwaking mob self slumbers within the bosom of society.

_________

1.  Voina i Mir. (War and Peace.)
2.  See Appendix 1.
3.  Atlantic Monthly, February, 1895.
4.  A Malo-Russian term for Veliko-Russians.  In all anti-Jewish riots Veliko-Russiuns were the ringleaders.
5.  Handbook of Revivals.

[* Boris Sidis was born in Berditchev in 1867.]

 

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