Gustave Le Bon

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Gustave Le Bon
Picture of Le Bon.jpg
Gustave Le Bon, 1888
Born Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon
(1841-05-07)7 May 1841
Nogent-le-Rotrou, France
Died 13 December 1931(1931-12-13) (aged 90)
Marnes-la-Coquette, France
Resting place Père Lachaise Cemetery
Nationality French
Alma mater University of Paris (M.D.)
Known for Crowd psychology
Influences Bénédict Morel, Charles Darwin, Jean-Martin Charcot, Paul Broca, Herbert Spencer, Gabriel Tarde, Ernst Haeckel, Hippolyte Taine
Influenced Sigmund Freud, Wilfred Trotter, Oswald Spengler, Wilfred Bion, Edward Bernays, Robert E. Park

Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon (French: [ɡys:tav lə bɔ̃]; 7 May 1841 – 13 December 1931) was a French polymath whose areas of interest included anthropology, psychology, sociology, medicine, invention, and physics.[1][2][3] He is best known for his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which is considered one of the seminal works of crowd psychology.[4][5]

A native of Nogent-le-Rotrou, Le Bon qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1866 at the University of Paris. He opted against the formal practice of medicine as a physician, instead beginning his writing career the same year of his graduation. He published a number of medical articles and books before joining the French Army after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Defeat in the war coupled with being a first-hand witness to the Paris Commune of 1871 strongly shaped Le Bon's worldview. He then travelled widely, touring Europe, Asia and North Africa. He analysed the peoples and the civilisations he encountered under the umbrella of the nascent field of anthropology, and invented a portable cephalometer during his travels.



Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, Centre-Val de Loire on 7 May 1841 to a family of Breton ancestry. At the time of Le Bon's birth, his mother, Annette Josephine Eugénic Tétiot Desmarlinais, was twenty-six and his father, Jean-Marie Charles Le Bon, was forty-one and a provincial functionary of the French government.[6] Le Bon was a direct descendant of Jean-Odet Carnot, whose granddaughter, Claudine Carnot, married Louis Le Bon. Jean-Odet's grandfather, Jean Carnot, had a brother, Denys, from whom the fifth president of the French Third Republic, Marie François Sadi Carnot, was directly descended.[7]

When Le Bon was eight years old, his father obtained a new post in French government and the family left Nogent-le-Rotrou never to return. Nonetheless, the town was proud that Gustave Le Bon was born there and later named a street after him. Little else is known of Le Bon's childhood, except for his attendance at a lycée in Tours, where he was an unexceptional student.[7]

In 1860, he began medicinal studies at the University of Paris. He completed his internship at Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, and received his doctorate in 1866. From that time on, he referred to himself as "Doctor" though he never formally worked as a physician. During his university years, Le Bon wrote articles on a range of medical topics, the first of which related to the maladies that plagued those who lived in swamp-like conditions. He published several other about loa loa filariasis and asphyxia before releasing his first full-length book in 1866, La mort apparente et inhumations prématurées. This work dealt with the definition of death, preceeding 20th-century legal debates on the issue.[8]

Life in Paris[edit]

Portrait of Gustave Le Bon, c. 1870

After his graduation, Le Bon remained in Paris, where he taught himself English and German by reading Shakespeare in each language.[9] He maintained his passion for writing and authored several papers on physiological studies, as well as a 1868 textbook about sexual reproduction which ran through eleven editions, before joining the French Army as a medical officer after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870.[10] During the war, Le Bon organised a division of military ambulances. In that capacity, he observed the behaviour of the military under the worst possible condition—total defeat, and wrote about his reflections on military discipline, leadership and the behaviour of man in a state of stress and suffering. These reflections garnered praise from generals, and were later studied at Saint-Cyr and other military academies in France. At the end of the war, Le Bon was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.[11]

Le Bon also witnessed the Paris Commune of 1871, which strongly affected his worldview. The then thirty-year-old Le Bon watched on as Parisian revolutionary crowds burned down the Tuileries Palace, the library of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the Gobelins Manufactory, the Palais de Justice, and other irreplaceable works of architectural art.[12]

From 1871 on, Le Bon was an avowed opponent of socialist pacifists and protectionists, who he believed were halting France's martial development and stifling her industrial growth; stating in 1913: "Only people with lots of cannons have the right to be pacifists."[13] He also warned his countrymen of the deleterious effects of political rivalries in the face of the German military might and rapid industrialisation, and therefore was uninvolved in the Dreyfus Affair which dichotomised France.[12]

Widespread travels[edit]

Le Bon in Algiers, 1880

Le Bon became interested in the emerging field of anthropology in the 1870s and travelled throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. Influenced by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel, Le Bon supported biological determinism and a hierarchical view of the races and sexes; after extensive field research, he posited a correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence in Recherches anatomiques et mathématiques sur les variations de volume du cerveau et sur leurs relations avec l'intelligence (1879), which earned him the Godard Prize from the French Academy of Sciences.[14] During his research, he invented a portable cephalometer to aid with measuring the physical characteristics of remote peoples, and in 1881 published a paper, "The Pocket Cephalometer, or Compass of Coordinates", detailing his invention and its application.[15]

In 1884, he was commissioned by the French government to travel around Asia and report on the civilisations there.[10] The results of his journeys were a number of books, and a development in Le Bon's thinking to also view culture to be influenced chiefly by hereditary factors such as the unique racial features of the people.[16][17] The first book, entitled La Civilisation des Arabes, was released in 1884. In this, Le Bon praised Arabs highly for their contributions to civilisation, but criticized Islamism as an agent of stagnation.[18][19] He also described their culture as superior to that of the Turks who governed them, and translations of this work were inspirational to early Arab nationalists.[20][21] He followed this with a trip to Nepal, becoming the first Frenchman to visit the country, and released Voyage au Népal in 1886.[22]

He next published Les Civilisations de l'Inde (1887), in which he applauded Indian architecture, art and religion but argued that Indians were comparatively inferior to Europeans in regard to scientific advancements, and that this had facilitated British domination.[23] In 1889, he released Les Premières Civilisations de l'Orient, giving in it an overview of the Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Egyptian civilisations. The same year, he delivered a speech to the International Colonial Congress that criticized colonial policies which included attempts of cultural assimilation, stating: "Leave to the natives their customs, their institutions and their laws."[24] Le Bon released the last book on the topic of his travels, entitled Les monuments de l'Inde, in 1893, again praising the architectural achievements of the Indian people.[25]

Development of theories[edit]

Gustave Le Bon on horseback

On his travels, Le Bon travelled largely on horseback and noticed that techniques used by horse breeders and trainers varied dependent on the region. In 1892, while riding a high-spirited horse, he was bucked off and narrowly escaped death. He was unsure as to what caused him to be thrown off the horse, and decided to begin a study of what he had done wrong as a rider.[26] The result of his study was L'Équitation actuelle et ses principes. Recherches expérimentales (1892), which consisted of numerous photographs of horses in action combined with analysis by Le Bon. This work became a respected cavalry manual, and Le Bon extrapolated his studies on the behaviour of horses to develop theories on early childhood education.[27]

His first great success was the publication of Lois psychologiques de l'évolution des peuples (1894); The Psychology of Peoples. His best selling work was La psychologie des foules (1895); 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 cousins Henri and Raymond Poincaré, Paul Valéry, Alexander Izvolsky, Henri Bergson, Marcellin Berthelot and Aristide Briand.[28]

Later life and death[edit]

Le Bon died on 13 December 1931 in Marnes-la-Coquette, a wealthy commune in the suburbs of Paris.


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, 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 (such as rioters smashing windows) and 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 psyche 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).

George Lachmann Mosse, former History professor in 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 and in Mein Kampf he drew largely on the propaganda techniques proposed by Le Bon.[29][30] Benito Mussolini also made a careful study of Le Bonian crowd psychology, frequently rereading the The Crowd.[31]

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.[32]

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.

In 1896 Le Bon reported observing a new kind of radiation, which he termed "black light".[33] 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.[34] 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 aether.[35] Henri Poincaré was one major supporter of this hypothesis.[36]


Bibliography compiled from the 1984 reissue of Psychologie du socialisme.[37]


  • La mort apparente et inhumations prématurées (1866); ("Apparent Death and Premature Burials")
  • Traité pratique des maladies des organes génitaux-urinaires (1869); ("Practical Treatise of Diseases of the Genitourinary System")
  • La vie (Traité de physiologie humaine) (1874); ("Life (Treatise of Human Physiology)")

Anthropology & psychology

  • Histoire des origines et du développement de l'homme et des sociétés (1877); ("History of the Origins and Development of Man and Society")
  • Voyage aux Monts-Tatras (1881); ("Travel to Tatra Mountains")
  • L'Homme et les sociétés (1881); ("Man and Society")
  • La Civilisation des Arabes (1884); The World of Islamic Civilization (1974)
  • Voyage au Népal (1886); ("Travel to Nepal")
  • Les Civilisations de l'Inde (1887); ("The Civilisations of India")
  • Les Premières Civilisations de l'Orient (1889); ("The First Civilisations of the Orient")
  • Les Monuments de l'Inde (1893); ("The Monuments of India")
  • Les Lois Psychologiques de l'Évolution des Peuples (1894); The Psychology of Peoples (1898)
  • Psychologie des Foules (1895); The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896)
  • Psychologie du Socialisme (1896); The Psychology of Socialism (1899)
  • Psychologie de l'éducation (1902); ("The Psychology of Education")
  • La Psychologie politique et la défense sociale (1910); ("The Psychology of Politics and Social Defense")
  • Les Opinions et les croyances (1911); ("Opinions and Beliefs")
  • La Révolution Française et la Psychologie des Révolutions (1912); The Psychology of Revolution (1913); The French Revolution and the Psychology of Revolution (1980).
  • Aphorismes du temps présent (1913); ("Aphorisms of Present Times")
  • La Vie des vérités (1914); ("Truths of Life")
  • Enseignements Psychologiques de la Guerre Européenne (1915); The Psychology of the Great War (1916)
  • Premières conséquences de la guerre: transformation mentale des peuples (1916); ("First Consequences of War: Mental Transformation of Peoples")
  • Hier et demain. Pensées brèves (1918); ("Yesterday and Tomorrow. Brief thoughts")
  • Psychologie des Temps Nouveaux (1920); The World in Revolt (1921)
  • Le Déséquilibre du Monde (1923); The World Unbalanced (1924)
  • Les Incertitudes de l'heure présente (1924); ("The Uncertainties of the Present Hour")
  • L'évolution actuelle du monde, illusions et réalités (1927); ("The Current Evolution of the World, Illusions and Realities")
  • Bases scientifiques d'une philosophie de l'histoire (1931); ("Scientific Basis for a Philosophy of History")

Natural science

  • La Méthode graphique et les appareils enregistreurs (1878); ("The Graphical Method and recording devices")
  • Recherches anatomiques et mathématiques sur les variations de volume du cerveau et sur leurs relations avec l'intelligence (1879); ("Anatomical and mathematical research on the changes in brain volume and its relationships with intelligence")
  • La Fumée du tabac (1880); ("Tobacco smoke")
  • Les Levers photographiques (1888); ("Photographic surveying")
  • L'Équitation actuelle et ses principes. Recherches expérimentales (1892); ("Equitation: The Psychology of the Horse")
  • L'Évolution de la Matière (1905); The Evolution of Matter (1907)
  • La naissance et l'évanouissement de la matière (1907); ("The birth and disappearance of matter")
  • L'Évolution des Forces (1907); The Evolution of Forces (1908)


  1. ^ Saler, Michael (2015). The Fin-de-Siècle World. Routledge. p. 450. ISBN 9780415674133. 
  2. ^ Piette, Bernard (2014). The Universe of Maxwell. Lulu Press Inc. p. 67. ISBN 9781291960082. 
  3. ^ Beck, Matthias (2013). Risk : A Study of Its Origins, History and Politics. World Scientific Publishing Company. p. 111. ISBN 978-9814383202. 
  4. ^ Rancière, Jacques (2016). The Method of Equality: Interviews with Laurent Jeanpierre and Dork Zabunyan. Polity. p. 95. ISBN 978-0745680620. 
  5. ^ Drury, John; Scott, Clifford (2015). Crowds in the 21st Century: Perspectives from Contemporary Social Science. Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 978-1138922914. 
  6. ^ Adas 1990, p. 195
  7. ^ a b Widener 1979, p. 25
  8. ^ Widener 1979, p. 26
  9. ^ Widener 1979, p. 21
  10. ^ a b Staff writer(s) (10 May 1941). "Gustave Le Bon". Nature. p. 573. 
  11. ^ Widener 1979, p. 27
  12. ^ a b Widener 1979, p. 28
  13. ^ Le Bon, Gustave (1913). Aphorismes du temps présent. Ernest Flammarion. ASIN B006SIQWQE. 
  14. ^ Staum 2011, p. 65
  15. ^ Bud, Robert; Warner, Deborah Jean (1998). Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 157. ISBN 9780815315612. 
  16. ^ Söyler, Mehtap (2015). The Turkish Deep State: State Consolidation, Civil-Military Relations and Democracy. Routledge. p. 70. ISBN 9781317668800. 
  17. ^ Mitter, Partha (1992). Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art. University of Chicago Press. p. 268. ISBN 9780226532394. 
  18. ^ Quinn, Frederick (2007). The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought. Oxford University Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780199886760. 
  19. ^ Hourani, Albert (1962). Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. Cambridge University Press. p. 173. ISBN 9780521274234. 
  20. ^ Kedourie, Sylvia (1962). Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Cambridge University Press. p. 182. ISBN 9780520026452. 
  21. ^ Kramer, Martin Seth (2011). Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East. Transaction Publishers. p. 63. ISBN 9781412817394. 
  22. ^ Carey, John (2012). The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939. Faber & Faber. p. 31. ISBN 9780571265107. 
  23. ^ Seymore, Sarah (2013). Close Encounters of the Invasive Kind: Imperial History in Selected British Novels of Alien-Encounter Science Fiction After World War II. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 108. ISBN 9783643903914. 
  24. ^ Betts 1960, p. 68
  25. ^ Sills, David L. (1968). International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Macmillan. p. 82. ISBN 9780028661520. 
  26. ^ Widener 1979, p. 14
  27. ^ Widener 1979, p. 15
  28. ^ Betts 1960, p. 65
  29. ^ Eley, Geoff; Jan Palmowski (2008). "Citizenship and National Identity in Twentieth-century Germany", Stanford University Press, p. 284.
  30. ^ Gonen, Jay Y. (2013). "The Roots of Nazi Psychology: Hitler's Utopian Barbarism", University Press of Kentucky, p. 92.
  31. ^ Ginneken, Jaap van (1992). "Crowds, Psychology, and Politics, 1871-1899", Cambridge University Press, p. 186.
  32. ^ p. 63 ff., Stuart Ewen, "PR!: A Social History of Spin", New York: Basic Books, 1996.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Kragh, Helge (1999). Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press): 11–12.
  35. ^ Meynard, Thierry (2010). The Religious Philosophy of Liang Shuming: The Hidden Buddhist. BRILL. p. 74. ISBN 9789004171510. 
  36. ^ Crosland, Maurice (2002). Science Under Control: The French Academy of Sciences 1795-1914, Cambridge University Press, p. 347.
  37. ^ Le Bon, Gustave (1984). Psychologie du socialisme. pp. 415–416. 


  • Barrows, Susanna (1981), Distorting Mirrors – Visions of the Crowd in Late 19th Century France, Yale University Press 
  • Nye, Robert (1975), The Origins of Crowd Psychology – Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic, Sage 
  • van Ginneken, Jaap (1992), The Era of the Crowd – Le Bon, Psychopathology and Suggestion, Cambridge University Press 
  • Betts, Raymond F. (1960), Assimilation and Association in French Colonial Theory, 1890-1914, U of Nebraska Press 
  • Adas, Michael (1990), Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Cornell University Press 
  • Staum, Martin S. (2011), Nature and Nurture in French Social Sciences, 1859–1914 and Beyond, McGill-Queen's Press 
  • Widener, Alice (1979), Gustave Le Bon, the Man and His Works, Liberty Press 

External links[edit]