Game of Cults: How to Master Group Psychology and Harness the Irrationality of the Crowd

Understanding crowd psychology

Gustave Le Bon was a strange dude.

He lived in France from 1841 to 1931 and was a qualified doctor of medicine, educated at the University of Paris.

He never practiced medicine. Instead, he spent his life traveling, studying various subjects like the gait of horses and physics, only to focus on sociology.

In 1895, he wrote The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. His specific interest was the “racial” unconscious of the group. His work has been fundamental in the development of crowd psychology and propaganda. But when reading his work today, you need to sort the wheat from the chaff.

His work is spattered with comparisons of the “rational” Northern European mind versus the “emotional” Southern European. In his analysis, the more a crowd devolves, the more irrational as it moves towards the hysterias of women and children.

His words, not mine.

Putting aside the chauvinism and other nonsense, he did share discoveries regarding human nature that were applied, to great effect, by social and academic revolutionaries.

While he may not have been the first to identify group behavior, he was the first to identify how a leader could manipulate the crowd. He recognized how crowds organize and have a behavior of their own.

We call this herd behavior in its simplest form, but that’s too simplistic to help you as a marketer.

Thinking of a group of people as a herd or sheeple is reductionist and misses out on very complex behavioral patterns that are vital to influencing human behavior within a group. You can get this mass of individuals to become something else, an organism with different motivations than the individual.

Throughout his book, Le Bon uses French history to show how crowds behave. First, during the revolution and how it devolved from a focused political movement into a murderous mob. Then, he shows how Napoleon acted as a leader to motivate the crowd to support him on his rise to emperor and later against him when his army turned on him during the Russian campaign.

I’ll distill what I found interesting for our work in building your readership community.

When in a group, the individual will is pliable. A person will act against their self-interest when influenced by a crowd. They can become heroic or criminal.

Why? The roots go deep, all the way back to our need to have a group for survival. Once we imprint our identity with the group, it becomes part of us, and we become part of it. It takes its place on your self-map.

This is interesting, and it was apparent on a day like January 6th. The crowd wasn’t composed of desperate vagrants. They were educated, working-class citizens and professionals who had been whipped into a frenzy. They had been brought to a point where they were putting the group’s ideals before their own of being a law-abiding citizen.

So, how do you influence your crowd?

You’ll see that it becomes pretty simple if you focus on Le Bon’s ideas.

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What makes a crowd is not its size but common ideas and sentiments. By getting individuals to perceive these sentiments, they will deepen their association with the group.

The sentiments morph from those of a self-interested individual to the unconscious sentiment of the crowd.

Sentiment and ideology

Sentiment has little to do with reality and rationality. Facts don’t matter.

While Le Bon talks about hysteria in a sexist way, it shouldn’t be lost on us that he is talking about how easily one can be consumed by the emotional influence of the crowd.

Emotions are the key.

Let’s look at publishing, for example.

The indie publishing community is anything but independent. It’s one of the most cohesive groups there is, and it forms around the Us versus Them sentiment. It can be equally collaborative or vicious. If I were looking to create a group around this topic, I would first start by getting people to share sentiments.

As an indie author, you’re on a lonely journey. On one side, you face trad pub, densely populated with gatekeepers focused on the status quo and unwilling to take risks.

On the other side, you have Big Tech, who has made it possible for you to finally get your stories into the hands of readers but have their own agenda. They abuse and take advantage of you with their constantly changing rules and large profit cuts.

Without a tribe of fellow authors to trust, who will protect you from the endless list of gurus looking to fleece you out of all your money as you travel on your publishing journey?

After reading those last few lines, did you start to nod your head?

Even if you are a successful full-time writer, did you begin to have the sentiment that you’re exploited and persecuted?

It is far easier to do this with a negative focus than a positive. With crowds, you’ll always need to have something to contrast against—the Them to our Us.

You need to evoke the emotion and then align it with the ideology or, in your case, your brand.

Why do you read these articles?

Sure, it’s because you’re an author seeking to build a better business, but also you’re smart. You like to research. You see that following the crowd isn’t working, and you want a better way.

Intellectually, you know what I’m doing with these words, but do you still get pulled in emotionally?

Le Bon goes further to unpack how a leader can influence crowds to do their bidding.

The power of words and images to evoke emotion

To engage the crowd, you seek to evoke emotion. This is best done by getting the crowd to have common imagery to imagine. In Advantage, I talk about using sacred words to create community meaning. When done best, there is a thread of meaning that connects from your story world and characters to the individual and then to the group.

How powerful can this be for pop culture? Let me show you.

Earlier in this series, I touched on the power of language and its ability to influence our world perception. The Star Trek community has even created a language: Klingon. In 1982, Marc Okrand, a linguist, was hired by Paramount to help with subtitles and lines in Vulcan and Klingon for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

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In 1985, he published the Klingon Dictionary, initially meant to be collateral merchandise to be sold to fans. Since then, a group of fans has learned this language, one going so far as to raise their children speaking Klingon. This has spilled over into reality and our economy, where language training software offers Klingon as an option.

Why would a fan go so far as to learn a fake language? To show commitment to the group.

But the influence of emotions on the crowd has even deeper effects. It plays to the ways cults indoctrinate and limit thought through the use and control of language. Suppose fans all call themselves by a joint group name associated with your story world. They are subtlety brainwashing themselves. Brainwashing and hypnosis require the subject to agree. It can’t be done against their will.

If you’re going to mobilize individuals into a community, words and images must be part of this process.

Dispensing with reason

Cultists and mobs don’t break up because of logic or facts. You can’t rationalize with an individual in the grips of a mob. I’ve watched countless videos of cult members and mob participants being interviewed.

At first, it’s funny to see someone so fervent about a topic out protesting in a group that cannot rationally articulate why they are there. Most fall back on catchphrases and triggering statements.

When confronted with reason, at best, they will go into circular arguments that to people outside of the group, seem crazy. But these protestors aren’t crazy. They are drenched in the sentiment of the crowd.

Are you crazy for participating in the Santa hoax?

As you work to build your community, focusing on emotional cues should become a powerful tool for group cohesion. You don’t need to rationally explain to readers the benefits to them or you for buying your books. Instead, get them so engaged in the joy and celebration of further development of your story experience that the sentiment motivates them to go into the market and buy.

“But I’m just getting started, Joe.”

In the beginning, the group may be two people, but then there will be three, five, ten, and fifty.

Groups have an instinctive need to be led

According to Le Bon, groups look for guidance.

They naturally seek a leader. In the following article, we will look at the work of Lippman and Bernays and their even more dismal view of the public and its need for guidance.

The point is that you’ll need to craft the ideology and sentiment and establish leadership. It doesn’t need to be you. It can be better if others become movement leaders to add legitimacy and social proof.

What you’ll want to have control over is the composition of the group and the ability to trigger them into action when it comes time to launch a book.

Le Bon’s guidance is for a leader to focus on affirmation and repetition. The group needs to know that they are unique and that the group is special. All messaging should be simple (noun-verb) and emotional, reinforce identity, and be repeated repeatedly.


Ah, virality, ever-elusive virality.

I’ve observed authors build up a community to the point of it propelling books into the number-one position in the store with no advertising.


Through market contagion—or an information cascade. In Advantage, I shared the research on how weak link networks can pass information fast but are detrimental to changing behavior. The type of network effect we’re seeking isn’t about the speed of messaging but the reinforcement of behavior, AKA peer pressure.

Contagion is probabilistic, so we look to increase probability. If the market is a complex self-organizing system, then we break it down into its components and influence its organization at simpler levels.

Then, like Judo, we use machine learning against itself.

What was harder is now easier because there are positive feedback loops optimizing the market to key performance indicators like conversions.

The underlying logic of Amazon’s marketing is to take advantage of above-average sales conversions. You achieve this by delivering an above-average conversion rate from a distinct audience, not traffic. Unconverted traffic dilutes your conversion rate. This fact contradicts most of the advice you get: Paid traffic, organic traffic—it’s all about traffic.

I see better results from smaller, distinct signals that happen when your tribe buys your book. It gets amplified when new tribe members also make purchases, setting you up for a more powerful signal at the next launch. Amazon doesn’t need traffic, and it certainly doesn’t have the resources to market every product equally, so they will select ASINs to market based on their conversion success. The logic now triggered by seeing an above-average conversion will test the product against similar demographics and purchasing profiles until the math (a below-average conversion rate) says stop.

Your book closes the loop. If the story resonates, the reader will be drawn into your experience and will want more. Those who don’t buy in right away shouldn’t be ignored because, as Dr. Centola shares in his research, those who take longer to convert will show higher commitment to the group.

Next week, we’ll dig into the work of Lipton and Bernays. You’ll see how marketing and politics are dominated by their ideas. We will apply them to help you indoctrinate and retain members systematically.

One more thing…

What is the sentiment you want in your group?

Is it positive or negative? How are you working to communicate that sentiment and get your group to buy into your brand?

Take some time to write these ideas out, then work to simplify them into noun-verb action phrases.

​​​​​​​Be sure to repeat them like voting in Chicago—early and often.

Read: Revolutionize Your Author Business with this 1 Simple Strategy