The Madness of Crowds

Either I am a completely outdated, antique piece who doesn’t get it, or I may be a very calm composed person. I tend to give myself a positive spin with a benefit of doubt thinking it is the latter, but I suspect the former is perhaps closer to the truth.

The last week has seen me pose a dumb look on two seemingly obvious phenomena that I supposedly should have been lapping up and going crazy about. Both of them made me feel like that guy in the ‘Yeh PSPO nahi jaanta’ advertisement with the sheepish smile.

The first happened earlier this week when everyone was talking about a new game called Pokémon GO and I made the mistake of asking a colleague ‘is that a new cartoon series?’ And the second one, perhaps an even bigger faux pas yesterday, specially in Bangalore, was to ask a friend ‘What is this Kabali?’ I probably might have narrowly escaped a thrashing from the onlooking crowd.

I find myself in numerous such situations of late. Perhaps such situations are happening more often in this new age of social and mobile and trending or whatever – again my own benefit of doubt to myself.

Mark Twain said that a ‘Classic′ is a book which people praise and don’t read. In that era, it probably took a long time after a book is released for it to achieve this kind of status. A few of Twain’s own books achieved that kind of status.

It seems that this period has been drastically cut of late. And it applies to not just books, but probably to movies, new products, games, apps, mobile phones, electronic devices, and what have you. And it looks like most of them become classics before they are released. Things people praise, talk about but haven’t yet read or seen – because they are not yet released. And I am left wondering what to do every time such a phenomenon turns up with the ‘Yeh PSPO nahin jaanta’ sheepish look.

This phenomenon was probably started by the iPhone mania in the US. For apps, maybe Angry Birds started it. Harry Potter movies used to see these delusions before release. And lately every new mobile phone release is ‘highly awaited’. So the stampede surrounding Kabali is hardly a surprise.

madnessofcrowds

In the 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles MacKay wrote of the crowd psychology that drive numerous “National Delusions,” “Peculiar Follies,” and “Psychological Delusions.”

“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.”

It does look like these delusions are more frequent of late – perhaps because there are so many objects attracting the attention of these minds (and their pockets) with easy channels of communication.

Many of these delusions are fleeting of course, and in all honesty, quite entertaining. All of them have the common result of getting some money out of your pocket. Some high, some low. A movie ticket here, or a book there, or some paid app, or at best a higher sum for a new electronic device maybe. So the harm is limited somewhat – for all the mania, it won’t leave a big hole in your pocket before, or even if it turns bad, a lasting one on your mind after.

But in the financial markets, these delusions are dime-a-dozen, and can be quite harmful. In fact, much of the day-to-day markets run on some delusion or the other – big or small. Many of them can also last quite long pulling even the most patient and experienced hands in. And with Love in the air (as in my last post), there are lots of new money-dwindling devices (like IPOs, new fund offers, expensive stocks, research reports, technical tips, stories of riches, business news, what have you!) waiting for your mind to get fixated on them. That’s where the madness of crowds can be not just entertaining, but positively harmful as well.

In such delusions, a dissenter from the crowd can look foolish, and despite all the patience, can eventually end up joining in for the fear of missing out. It is only later that one can learn whether one was sane or stupid. It is better to miss out on such madness of crowds – due to being outdated, lazy or composed, or some other reason.

It is worthwhile to remember what Charles Mackay rightly wrote in 1841.

“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.”

Now let me go get my ticket for Kabali.

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2 Responses to The Madness of Crowds

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent. Girish Kuber , Editor of Loksatta, expressed similar views in his Editorial today. Great men think alike.

  2. Thank you for your comments!

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