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Moved by Masses? Shared Moods and Their Impact on Immoral Behavior


It is often suggested that people in large groups behave and act differently than when they are alone. More precisely, it is an often-repeated claim that they tend to act in a morally problematic or plainly reprehensible way. Still, a fully satisfying explanation has not yet been given for why this is the case. In this paper, I suggest that the phenomenon of shared moods may play a crucial role here. In order to explicate and support this thesis, first, I will point out the problem in a more detailed way while also considering findings in social psychology. Second, I will give a sketch of how shared moods should be (philosophically) conceptualized as a special affective phenomenon by refering to the discussion of collective intentionality and emotions. Thirdly and finally, I will address concretely the question of what might make shared moods morally precarious by distinguishing also between collective and joint moods that both can change a person’s self-understanding as an (moral) actor.

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  1. Sigmund Freud already cites a long tradition of this thought, starting in antiquity, long before Gustave le Bon. Freud 1921, 25 f.

  2. The word “affective“is not used in a further specific sense but just to qualify all sorts of states that originate in some affection and are felt.

  3. Burhan Qurbani (2015), Germany. For the trailer see:

  4. This is especially conveyed through Aristotle (1984), for example in the Politics, with several peaks in the subsequent intellectual history, and defended by Adam Smith (1984) in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and David Hume (2009) in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. This contrasts for example with the different anthropological view of Thomas Hobbes (1996) as provided in the Leviathan, which stresses the antagonistic tendencies of humans.

  5. More recently there also have been studies in this direction not only concerning the personal but also the sub-personal level, i.e. neurological basis. They try to show which areas of the brain are activated in social interaction and find that there are relations with the reward system. So there is also evidence from this perspective for the fact that acting with or like others is pleasant for people and explains why people tend to orientate themselves on others. Pfeiffer et al. 2014.

  6. Also, le Bon tried to show that people in masses become like “savages” and were guided by wild and bad instincts of the unconscious. Le Bon 1897, ch. 2 passim. Nowadays, one tries to find explanations without such assumptions about archaic impulses.

  7. In contrast with philosophy, contemporary psychology provides more studies on moods. Cf., for example, with a focus that is of relevance here: Clore and Schnall 2005. But here as in other psychological studies moods and emotions could be distinguished more clearly.

  8. For the following cf. Weber-Guskar 2009, chapter I; Goldie 2000; Döring 2009.

  9. Cf. Solomon 1993 [Orig. 1976]. In contrast, Lormand takes moods as totally non-intentional. Lormand 1985.

  10. Cf. Goldie, ch. XX.

  11. “Locally bound” is to be understood rather narrowly, meaning short-duration situations. One surely could make even more distinctions. If we think, for example, of the weather in a certain area as stimulating a mood, and the weather is stable over a long period (as in Medellin in Colombia, for example, famous for its permanent spring time), then this seems to be a locally bound mood that has a long duration. In this paper I refer to situational moods as some that are locally bound and of a rather short duration, not more than hours.

  12. One of the first works on theories of affordances is Gibson 1986; a relevant recent one is van Dijk and Rietveld 2017.

  13. This idea of the connection between place, space and feeling could be enriched by some aspects of the work of Hermann Schmitz that Nina Trcka refers to in this volume.

  14. Carefully discussed in Salmela 2012, 34 ff.

  15. However, the distinction between an ontological and phenomenological subject is not too easy to accept. Schmid provides a good summary of the criticisms and defends his position in Schmid 2014, 10 ff.

  16. The second aspect is already well described by Bollnow 1941, 103.

  17. There are also smaller groups within the large group for which this does not hold true. There are some Neo-Nazis who came with the goal to contribute to riots and who are more homogenous as a group.

  18. I do not call them "aggregative moods“ because in the literature "aggregative“ is used to label the case when different persons share only the type of an intention or of an emotion (or, respectively, a mood).

  19. This account has some similarity with the account of “common feelings” (“gemeinsame Gefühle”) by Hilge Landweer because she also avoids the idea of a collective subject. Cf. Landweer 2016, 151 ff. But Landweer distinguishes between the emotion and the “personal affectedness” experienced from an emotion (“persönliche Betroffenheit”) so that she can say that many people are personally affected by the same token of emotion. As I hesitate to postulate the existence of emotions in such an ontological sense, I cannot follow her completely and try to give an explanation in terms of other categories, as can be seen.

  20. This paper concentrates on the present and local conditions and leaves aside the background conditions of how the people who come together in a crowd are related to each other in the first place, how far they converge in fundamental norms etc., which also plays a role but goes beyond the scope of this paper.

  21. While discerning in important ways, Scheler does stay with contagion for mass affects and contrasts this phenomenon with feeling together. The idea of resonance that I propose in this paper starts from the differences but makes a different claim about how crowd moods emerge. Cf. for this topic also Landweer 2016.

  22. Landweer 2016, in the tradition of Hermann Schmitz (for example Schmitz 2011).

  23. Rosa uses this physical understanding of resonance in his book as well. Rosa 2016, 281 ff. But later, for his explication of all kinds of resonance that are possible in the world, he departs from this confined explication and adopts a broader conception in which a person can also resonate with nature, for example, with the Alps. Here it is clear that only the person, not the Alps, can have affective states that could be compared with the resonating state of a chord.

  24. I do not refer in more detail to Krebs because in her analysis she is interested in shared emotions between people who know each other and stand in a more or less serious relationship with each other. Ultimately she wants to explain love as a shared feeling (“geteiltes Fühlen”), which title of her book already suggests: Zwischen Ich und Du. Eine dialogische Philosophie der Liebe. She mentions only by passing that strangers can have shared emotions too. She provides Otto Bollnow and the joy an audience listening to speech as an example (Krebs 2015, 222).

  25. I leave open the question of what exactly is responsible for the fact that shared moods arise. I mention necessary conditions, but I am not sure whether these or others are sufficient.

  26. For a more detailed consideration of why some feelings are felt more intensely when shared, cf. Landweer 2016, 158 f.

  27. There has been considerable sociological research on emotions and social movements in which emotions are shown to be important for social or political actions. Cf. Jaspers 2011. But research still needs to be done on the blind-action tendency itself.

  28. For studies in this direction, cf. Fessler and Holbrook 2014.

  29. For good accounts and discussions of collective responsibility, see for example Isaacs 2011 and Gerber 2010.

  30. More recently people have started to elaborate on the positive effects that crowds can have on people and their behavior – regarding political movements as intellectual efforts. Cf. Surowiecki 2005. But note that these are most often considerations of more complex masses than the short-term local crowds I was analyzing in this paper.

  31. I thank three anonymous reviewers and the members of the Colloquium for Applied Ethics at the Ethics Center of the University of Zurich for helpful comments to an earlier version of this paper.


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Weber-Guskar, E. Moved by Masses? Shared Moods and Their Impact on Immoral Behavior. Philosophia 45, 1663–1679 (2017).

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  • Moods
  • Philosophy of emotions
  • Social philosophy
  • Crowd psychology
  • Collective intentionality
  • Collective emotions