The unwisdom of the crowd

Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis

Whilst reading Surowiecki, Leadbeater et al it’s easy to get carried away with the notion that the crowd is, overall, smarter than the individual. It’s an impressively pithy idea that’s sometimes counter-intuitive, and so sticks easily in our minds, despite these writers and others reminding us that it’s not always the case.

An antidote to crowd wisdom can be found in the work of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. He has made several films on a variety of themes including the role of psychology in The Century of the Self; the use of Cold War theory in modern economics in The Trap; and the uses of fear to control countries of people in perhaps his most notable series of films, The Power of Nightmares. All of these films are freely available on the net, including on YouTube.

Despite the different themes, Curtis has an underlying thread which runs throughout his films: the deliberate manipulation of large numbers of people by the very few. In The Century of the Self, those people are American consumers in a free market, controlled by, amongst others, the father of public relations Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays

Bernays was a significant character in twentieth century economics whose influence remains pervasive. Building on the Freudian approach that the subconscious powerfully sought to satisfy its base desires, he believed he could tap into that process to make people think they needed his product.

When cigarette manufacturers approached him complaining not enough women were smoking, he used a psychological mechanism common in women to increase sales. In 1950s American smoking was a male activity, especially in public, and taboo to women on the whole. Recognising the recent influence advances in women’s suffrage, Bernays hit upon the idea that cigarettes could represent ‘Torches of Freedom‘, a protest at male dominance. Women would smoke because they were free to, because they were now emancipated and powerful.

Bernays had several dozen well-dressed, young women smoke at The New York City parade in 1929 in front of carefully assembled newspaper photographers. As a direct result sales of cigarettes to women soared and there was a rise in the number of women smoking in public. The success was attributed to a wholesale change in perceptions of the cigarette as a male domain to one that represented a powerful need: freedom of expression. It was one of the most successful campaigns of all time, and still is used as an examplar for those interested in PR.

What this tells us is that the crowd can be manipulated by a single person with an influential idea. In order to achieve this, the crowd has been reduced to one common element – in this case their attitude towards smoking – which is then subverted through control of their shared belief system and psychological processes. By allowing themselves to be manipulated the crowd were unwise. Curtis cites several more examples, from the pervasive influence of religion on millions of believers to modern politicians – in The Power of Nightmares – controlling whole countries, continents even, through a force equally as powerful as the desire to consume: fear.

Gradually, and as these kinds of example of mass manipulation become more explicit and understood, we’ve become more sceptical about how politicians and public relations work. It’s hard to imagine Bernays’ stunt working now in quite the same way. But without the perceived and recorded influence of the few over the many there would be no advertising, no public relations and no unnecessary and ubiquitous consumption. When this is at odds with the authentic requirements of the people, you and me included, it’s evidence of the unwisdom of the crowd.

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