‘Mass Formation’ Is a Two-Headed Coin

The buzz-phrase of the moment is “mass formation psychosis.” 

You’ve likely heard of it by now. If not, good for you! That probably means you have normal, healthy interests and activities to fill your time, and you aren’t jacked-in 24/7 to the buzzing chaos of social and other media.

The term rocketed to everyone’s attention when the vaccinologist and disease-outbreak expert Dr. Robert Malone discussed it on a now-viral interview with podcast host Joe Rogan. The interview has been censored by most social-media outlets, but you can still watch it on Spotify. (There’s a war on, so these things are to be expected, I guess.)

Malone picked up the idea from Dr. Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ghent. Desmet gives a clear, concise explanation of the idea in another video interview (also featuring Malone). I encourage you to take the time to listen to his summary, which starts at about 16:50 in the linked video.

If you haven’t the time to watch videos, I’ll offer a brief summary of my own. “Mass formation” (Desmet thinks it’s inaccurate, and unhelpfully polarizing, to add the word “psychosis,” and I agree) is a newish term for an age-old and long-studied phenomenon: the occasional, and usually quite sudden, arising of passionate and sometimes completely irrational fixations of attention, desire, hatred, or other affinities and aversions in crowds of various sizes, from local mobs to entire societies. In Desmet’s view, which tallies well with what others have said, several conditions must be met to call what we are seeing today a mass formation.

The first condition is a generalized state of what’s called “free-floating anxiety.” This, I think it’s safe to say, generally arises at times of social and historical instability, when nobody can be sure that the conditions upon which they have constructed their personal and public lives can be relied on to continue. People begin to feel that things are “out of control,” and the low “time preference” that is always and everywhere the backbone of sturdy civilizations begins to erode. This has a feedback effect: when people begin to see that others around them are becoming unable to plan confidently for the future, it throws their own plans into doubt, and this, in turn, affects others. It’s called “free-floating” anxiety because there is often no definite culprit or concrete threat of the sort that one might be able to do something about; there’s just a generally rising level of uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring, and an ominous atmosphere of nervousness. This feeling—anxiety without a definite target—is extremely stressful and unpleasant.

The second condition is increasing social isolation, a general breaking-down of the horizontal ligatures that bind individual human lives into a sturdy and compact whole. This sort of thing is not difficult to quantify—and as Desmet points out in the video, the numbers in recent years are not good, with large proportions of people polled saying that they have no meaningful relationships in their lives. It’s gotten so bad, in this philosophically and spiritually barren era (thank you, secularism!), that in 2018, the UK’s then-Prime Minister Teresa May appointed a “minister of loneliness.”

The third condition is a crisis of meaning: a loss of a connection to any sort of natural (or even artificial) telos, to anything really mattering. We see this in the shocking increase in what are called “deaths of despair”: suicides, drug overdoses, and slow death by alcohol abuse, obesity, and general neglect of health. We see it also in the ever-increasing prevalence of depression and the widespread use of antidepressant medications, and I think it’s fair to say that we see it in the cratering fertility rates of modernized nations. This decline in fertility is connected, in turn, to our narrowing “presentism,” and rejection of our cultural past, which is something I’ve written about elsewhere

If you no longer see yourself as a link in a great chain of life and culture, a bridge between your ancestors and your descendants, and a steward of your people’s heritage for generations unborn, you have just cut away one of the great wellsprings of meaning in human life—and you only have to look around you to see that we have been sawing away at that, with the furious vigor of madness, for decades now.

The final condition is anger and frustration. Can there be any doubt that these are in good supply?

When all these conditions are met, the collective psyche becomes like a supercooled liquid: given the right nucleus around which to coalesce, a “phase transition” can propagate throughout the system in a very short time. That nucleus is some object that can be plausibly identified as a cause of everyone’s anxiety and frustration, and the allure of attacking and eliminating it through collective action becomes, for many people, irresistible. The reason for this is sensible enough, because it addresses, in a single stroke, all of the stress-conditions listed above: it offers, at last, a concrete object to which free-floating anxiety can attach, about which something can be done; it provides a much-needed basis for the reconstruction of social bonds; it puts before the group a great purpose toward which everyone can direct their energy; and, perhaps most attractive of all, it creates a common enemy toward which the people can channel their anger. 

Those who stand in the way of this collective purpose, as well as those who merely lack enthusiasm for the cause, have consciously excluded themselves from this new social bond, and so they are easily, and usually eagerly, seen as enemies who must be isolated or eliminated. This polarization in turn encourages increasingly conspicuous signaling of one’s fidelity to the group and its cause. The more costly those signals are at a personal level, the more they signify commitment to the new social bond, and the more respect they purchase from the in-group—even if (or, perhaps, especially if) they do nothing that is actually effective in solving the underlying problem.

That is, I think, a fair summary of Desmet’s diagnosis. I think it’s important to note again that the use of “psychosis” is strongly misleading, as it suggests that this process is by definition irrational. On the contrary, it has been observed for so long, in so many cultures, that I think it’s safe to say that this mechanism is almost certainly “baked in” to human nature as an adaptive, and no doubt effective, response to various group-level threats. It is also a dangerous conceit to imagine, as many on the Right seem to be doing with this viral idea, that it currently manifests itself only with regard to the COVID panic, and only on the Left. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the four conditions enumerated by Desmet are amply met throughout modern society, across political and ideological lines, and that as long as our various factions struggle to live together, any mass-formation on one side is likely to increase anger and stress on the other, in a destructive feedback loop.

The remarkable autodidact Eric Hoffer wrote eloquently and insightfully about what we are now calling “mass formation” in his 1954 book The True Believer. The book, which was an influential best-seller in its day, is not much remembered now, but his words are as apt today as they were when he wrote them:

Unity and self-sacrifice, of themselves, even when fostered by the most noble means, produce a facility for hating. Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerant toward those not of a like mind.

. . . There is also this: when we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.

About Malcolm Pollack

Malcolm Pollack is a recording engineer and writer living in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He blogs at malcolmpollack.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mtpollack.

Photo: iSTock/Getty Images

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