Japan from the inside out

Popular delusions and the madness of crowds in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 22, 2008

“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!”
– Charles Mackay

THE QUOTE ABOVE comes from Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841 and still one of the most insightful books on the human condition ever written. Mackay states his intention in the preface to the first edition:

The object of the author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.

He made it even clearer in the preface to a later edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. 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.

Most contemporary references to the book cite incidents from the three chapters on economic bubbles, particularly the Dutch tulip mania in the 1630s. But Mackay’s book covers a wider range of human behavior, which he classified in three groups: National Delusions, Peculiar Follies, and Philosophical Delusions.

Lest anyone dismiss these stories as humoresques or curiosities from a less enlightened age, we should realize that the nexus of modern communications and information technology, including television, personal computers, the Internet, and the mass media, has allowed this aspect of the human character to flourish.

For an excellent example, we need look no farther than the current popular delusion and madness of the crowd in South Korea over President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to allow imports of American beef after a five-year ban.

Try this post by Sonagi at The Marmot’s Hole for a brief but penetrating look at the phenomenon. Most astonishing is his account of the misinformation published in the International Herald Tribune. (The links to Korean newspapers are unfortunately not in English, but you’ll get the idea.)

Sonagi provides us a taste with this quote:

During the Saturday rally, a high school girl took the microphone and said before the crowd: “I drove four hours to join this rally because I don’t want to die.”

Whenever there is a new advance in information technology, some people talk as if it will change the world. It won’t, of course; it’ll just make it easier for some to conduct their business, some to have a new toy for killing time, and for others to behave like the fools they are.

And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the business of the mass media is anything other than to profit from this behavior by encouraging it. Claiming that their mission is to speak truth to power and give voice to the powerless is only a popular delusion within the infotainment guild.

None of the rest of us has to fall for it.

Disclaimers: I’m an American who almost never eats beef, supports free trade among nations regardless of the nations involved, and thinks that protectionism hurts everyone in the long run.

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