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Focused Protection: Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff

The Madness of Crowds

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To Mattias Desmet, the pandemic that crashed into 2020 was more of a state of mind than a material reality. Yes, there was a new contagious disease. Yes, we needed to take it seriously. Yes, it warranted some collective action. But the way people were behaving? That was the real virus. “From May 2020 onwards, I had the feeling that the core was not the biological problem,” he has said. “It was a psychological problem.”

[This is an except from Blindsight Is 2020, published by Brownstone Institute.]

A professor of clinical psychology at the university of Ghent in Belgium, Desmet couldn’t shake the sense that a mental disturbance was spreading through the world, making people behave in strange ways: with suspicion, hostility, sanctimoniousness, and very little common sense. 

Carl Jung, one of Desmet’s seminal influences, would likely agree with his disciple’s assessment. In Jung’s estimation, “it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer, but man himself who is the greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the world of natural catastrophes.”

Now hold on, you might say. The coronavirus was a nasty piece of work that demanded a vigorous collective response. People and governments behaved reasonably, under the circumstances. But Desmet saw nothing reasonable about a shopper in a grocery store screaming at another shopper for removing her mask to scratch her face. Or calling a snitch line after spotting someone sipping a coffee on the beach. Or depriving a dying parent of human touch.

In essence, Desmet was saying: “This virus is a nasty piece of work and the world has gone mad.” He and other lockdown-critical people keep returning to this point: a real threat and a disproportionate response can coexist. Neither reality precludes the other. As the old joke goes, it’s possible to be paranoid and to be followed at the same time. 

Desmet’s dual training in psychology and statistics gave him a unique angle on the pandemic. The statistician in him began seeing red flags in May 2020, when new data from population studies suggested that early projections had overestimated the lethality of the virus. At the same time, global organizations like the United Nations were starting to sound alarm bells about the harms of lockdowns in the developing world, where cessation of economic activity could lead millions to starvation and loss of life. Instead of adjusting the strategy to the new information, governments and people doubled down: stay home, stay apart. Don’t be selfish. More lockdowns, please. 

At that point, Desmet “switched from the perspective of statistician to [that] of a clinical psychologist… I started to try to understand what psychological processes were going on in society.” The question burning in his mind: Why was the world clinging to a narrative that no longer fit the facts? His Eureka moment came in August 2020: “This was a process of large-scale mass formation.” Having lectured about the phenomenon for years, he was “surprised it took me so long” to connect the dots.

In interview after interview, Desmet set about explaining mass formation to the world. (Somewhere along the way, his listeners tacked on “psychosis” to the term, but Desmet himself has stuck to the original wording.) After his September 2021 interview with UK podcaster Dan Astin-Gregory, which garnered over a million views and ten thousand shares, other online influencers began popularizing the term. And then an even bigger moment arrived: on the last day of 2021, American physician and vaccine scientist Robert Malone brought up mass formation on the Joe Rogan Experience show. All of a sudden the whole world was talking about Desmet and his hypothesis.

So what exactly is it, anyway? Desmet explains mass formation as the emergence, in society, of a mass or crowd of people that influences people in specific ways. “When an individual is in the grip of mass formation, they become radically blind to everything that goes against the narratives the group believes in,” he says. If the hypnotic state persists, they will “try to destroy everyone who doesn’t go along with them, and they typically do it as if it is an ethical duty.”

According to Desmet, four conditions must exist for mass formation to emerge: a lack of social connectedness (what political philosopher Hannah Arendt calls “social atomization”), a lack of meaning in many people’s lives, a high level of “free-floating” anxiety in society (meaning anxiety without a specific object, unlike the anxiety you feel when a tiger is heading your way), and an undercurrent of societal aggression with no outlet.

As a clinical psychologist, Desmet was especially attuned to the social malaise preceding the pandemic, as evidenced by a “steady increase in the number of depression and anxiety problems and the number of suicides” and the “enormous growth in absenteeism due to psychological suffering and burnout.” In the year before Covid, “you could feel this malaise growing exponentially.” 

The final catalyst for mass formation is a narrative—ideally of the mythical sort, with heroes and villains. In his 2021 book The Delusions of Crowds, a history of financial and religious mass manias over the past five centuries, William Bernstein notes how “a compelling narrative can act as a contagious pathogen that rapidly spreads through a given population” in the same manner as a virus. As the narrative spreads from person to person, from country to country, it spirals into “a vicious cycle for which we lack an analytical emergency brake.” No matter how misleading the narrative, “if compelling enough it will nearly always trump the facts” because the human brain can’t resist a good yarn. As Bernstein puts it, “we are the apes who tell stories.” 

The Covid narrative met all the criteria for triggering mass formation: a deadly plague, an “enemy against humanity” (to borrow WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus’s locution), a call to join forces and fight it. A chance for heroism. The pandemic memes of the early days, telling social recluses they could finally claim hero status by eating potato chips and zoning out on their couch, tapped into this sensibility.

The narrative also gave people a focus for their anxiety, which they could now project onto a concrete (if invisible) enemy. Suddenly enlisted in a global army, they experienced what Desmet calls the “mental intoxication of connectedness.” Purpose, meaning, social bonds, now available to every malcontent. The scientists who brought the story to the public, in turn, were “rewarded with tremendous social power.” It’s no surprise the narrative gripped both experts and ordinary citizens so tightly. But here’s the rub: the social bonds fostered by mass formation do not occur between individuals, but between each person and an abstract collective. “That’s crucial,” Desmet says. “Every individual separately connects to the collective.”

This leads us to the concept of parochial altruism, sensitively explored in an essay by Lucio Saverio-Eastman. Defined as “individual sacrifice to benefit the in-group and harm an out-group,” this type of altruism undermines cooperation between groups and leads to pathological (rather than reasoned) obedience—hardly the ingredients for a truly caring global response to a pandemic. Instead of owning their thoughts and decisions, people in the grip of parochial altruism engage in outward projection, which Saverio-Eastman describes as “a deflection of individual responsibility onto the collective in-group or out-group.”

This mindset explains why, despite all the talk of solidarity in the early weeks of the crisis, people would scurry away from a maskless tourist asking for directions. If someone fell on the sidewalk, other pedestrians refused to break the six-foot barrier to offer help. They let their parents die alone “to protect the elderly.”

When people bond with an abstraction (“the greater good”), rather than with other people, Desmet says they lose their moral bearings. That’s why mass formation erodes people’s humanity, leading them to “report [others] to government, even people they loved before, out of solidarity with the collective.

Ah yes, the tattle-tales. By April 2020, “social distancing snitches” in Canada were already clogging 911 emergency lines with hundreds of calls, including 300 complaints involving people in parks in a single day.10 When polled about snitching, four in 10 Canadians said they intended to report anyone who flouted the Covid rules. After a resplendent spring day brought some Montreal rule breakers out of hiding, the local police set up a COVID-19 webpage to make snitching that much easier.

Generally derided as the conduct of petty bureaucrats with lack of agency in their lives, snitching became a badge of good citizenship in the early weeks of the pandemic. As psychologist Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier observes, snitching “gives people the impression that they have more control on [sic] their situation. It’s a way of controlling our fear.”

Some might argue that snitching serves a unique social purpose in a pandemic, but encouraging people to turn on each other hardly promotes solidarity. On the contrary, it weakens the social bonds that Desmet views as crucial to our humanity. And once given free rein, the snitching impulse tends to run away with itself. People don’t just report their neighbors for having raucous birthday bashes, but for sharing a coffee with a friend on a park bench or even for walking along a deserted beach. At that point, the snitches are no longer motivated by good citizenship, but by the naked impulse to control, which Desmet views as both a driver and outcome of mass formation. Under the spell of mass formation, people seek uniformity, and the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.

According to Desmet, unchecked mass formation can easily slip into totalitarianism, an idea he explores in his 2022 book The Psychology of Totalitarianism. Just weeks after its publication, the book became an Amazon #1 bestseller in the privacy & surveillance category. (Note to book authors looking to turn a profit: get on Joe Rogan’s show.) As Desmet explains in the book, every totalitarian regime begins with a period of mass formation. Into this tense and volatile mass steps an autocratic government and voilà, the totalitarian state clicks into place. “Nascent totalitarian regimes typically fall back on a ‘scientific’ discourse,” he says.“They show a great preference for figures and statistics, which quickly degenerate into pure propaganda.” The architects of the new regime don’t go around shouting, “I am evil.” They often believe, to the bitter end, they are doing the right thing.

Some people get really jumpy at the suggestion that the Covid protocols bear any resemblance to a totalitarian regime. In Desmet’s defense, he never alleges that we’ve landed there. He simply maintains that Covid created the right conditions for totalitarianism to creep in: a frightened public, a cry for strong government action, and the universal political impulse to hold on to power when given the reins. A 34-nation European organization called IDEA agrees that democracy has taken a beating since Covid, “with countries notably taking undemocratic and unnecessary actions to contain the coronavirus pandemic.”

Fortunately, during the pandemic’s third year, countervailing forces began nudging most of the world away from Covid extremism. Even so, Desmet suggests we remain vigilant. A sneaky new variant could send us right back to where we started: scared, angry, lost to rational discourse, and begging to be locked down again.

Over 40 million people listened to Joe Rogan’s interview with Robert Malone, turning mass formation into a household word. The media pushback was swift and merciless—and if I may, editorially sloppy. A commentary in Medpage Today, written 12 days after the interview, exemplifies the low bar: “Malone posits that promoting messages encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, among other scientifically validated pandemic communications, is an attempt to hypnotize groups of people to follow these messages against their will.” 

A simple fact check can puncture that statement. Texas congressman Troy Nehls saw fit to preserve the full interview transcript on his website, and everything Malone had to tell Rogan about mass formation appears on p. 38. For example: “When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other and has free-floating anxiety…and then their attention gets focused by a leader or series of events on one small point, just like hypnosis, they literally become hypnotized and can be led anywhere… This is central to mass formation psychosis and this is what has happened.” A few more sentences, essentially more of the same, and he’s done. Earlier in the interview he talks about the lack of transparency surrounding the vaccine data, but never once does he link the vaccination campaign to mass formation or group hypnosis. I read the whole transcript—twice—just to make sure. 

Other pundits threw shade on the concept of mass formation itself, calling it scientifically unsound and unproven. A Reuters Fact Check article reported that the term doesn’t appear in the American Psychology Association dictionary and that, according to “numerous psychologists,” it lacks professional legitimacy.

It’s a disingenuous allegation. When you get down to it, mass formation is just another term for good old mob psychology. We may not have an instrument to measure it, but we’ve recognized the phenomenon for centuries. Scholars such as Freud, Jung, and Gustave Le Bon have all described it. Both The Delusions of Crowds and its 19th-century inspiration, Memoirs of Extraordinarily Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, discuss it. In his book Crowds and Power, written in 1960, Nobel laureate Elias Canetti argues that fear leads people to devolve into pack behavior. Fear of the virus did just that, leading people to set aside their basic humanity and common sense.

Remember the mother who put her 13-year-old son in the trunk of her car? The boy had tested positive for the virus and she was taking him for additional testing. To protect herself from exposure, she had him lie in the trunk while she drove him to the testing site. “What she did is antithetical to every maternal instinct we have,” says podcaster Trish Wood in a post-Rogan interview with Desmet. “For a mother to put her own fear…above the care and comfort of a kid… I mean, really?”

Or how about this one? Paramedics wouldn’t let a 19-year-old man with meningitis symptoms into the hospital until he tested negative for Covid. The staff was “so psychotically attached to the Covid narrative,” to use Wood’s phrasing, that they disregarded his obviously alarming symptoms. When his parents took him to the ER a second time, he was so weak they had to carry him to the car. Hospital staff refused to let him in, and the young man died.19 

Can people read stories like this and not conclude the virus vigilantes were under a spell? 

When in the thrall of mass formation, people become “radically intolerant to dissonant voices,” Desmet says on various occasions. They certainly don’t welcome the suggestion that they’re being swept up by the crowd, and the strength of their numbers allows them to push the idea out of consciousness. That’s why Desmet encourages those who take issue with the dominant narrative—about 10 to 30 percent of the population, by his estimate—to speak out. “If there is no dissonant voice anymore in society, then the process of mass formation becomes increasingly deep.”

It bears repeating: Desmet has never denied the biological reality of the virus or the threat it poses to public health. Nor does he ascribe evil motives to the people who responded in extreme ways. He simply sees the forces of crowd psychology at work. There’s nothing surprising in any of this: When you mix a virus with a planet of frightened people, how could crowd psychology not kick in?

In fact, several other academics have circled around Desmet’s mass formation hypothesis, using slightly different terms. In a 2021 journal article, a trio of academics concluded that “collective hysteria may have contributed to policy errors during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Within the psychotherapy community, Desmet finds a staunch ally in Mark McDonald, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. MacDonald traces the rash of mental health problems afflicting his patients in the post-Covid era—the stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and domestic violence—to the climate of fear stoked by public health authorities and amplified by the media. Like Desmet, he contends that people stopped thinking rationally when Covid arrived, and that the “mass delusional psychosis” that gripped the world has done more harm than the virus itself. 

Whatever we call the phenomenon—mass formation, mob psychology, social contagion—Desmet says we can offset it by drawing on eternal principles of humanity. Like Jung, he invites us to reach beyond a purely rational and mechanistic world view—to cultivate a “resonant knowing” that awakens real empathy and connection between people.



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Author

  • Gabrielle Bauer

    Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto health and medical writer who has won six national awards for her magazine journalism. She has written three books: Tokyo, My Everest, co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Prize, Waltzing The Tango, finalist in the Edna Staebler creative nonfiction award, and most recently, the pandemic book BLINDSIGHT IS 2020, published by the Brownstone Institute in 2023

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