Mass Formation Psychosis

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From Climate Scepticism


“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”The Cheshire Cat, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When I look around me nowadays, I find it hard to disagree with the Cheshire Cat – and I say that in full knowledge that he lived down a fictitious rabbit hole and his party trick was to spontaneously morph into a disembodied smile. That said, ‘madness’ is such a maddeningly ambiguous term that I feel obliged to clarify what it is exactly that I am agreeing with. It isn’t that I believe that we are all suffering a mental illness, because that would be a mad thing to claim. What I mean instead is that we seem to live in a world where extremely foolish and irrational beliefs and actions seem to have become the new normal. Worse still, it seems that it is no longer possible to have two opposing, rational views on a given subject – instead there has to be one’s own view, and that held by your mad opponent. And since one can assume that your mad opponent feels the same way about you, that means we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.

In the two great debates of our generation — climate change and covid-19 vaccination — such accusations and counter accusations of craziness have a strong tradition, heavily fuelled by acrimonious and largely fruitless internet exchanges. For the most part the accusations are born of frustration that the other guy just can’t seem to grasp the obvious. More worryingly, however, some of these accusations have been elevated to the status of pseudoscience by a vocal coterie of academics who should know better. Take, for example, the climate change debate, in which the so-called denier’s cognitive shortcomings and irrationality have been extensively analysed and pathologised by the psychology profession. It’s an analysis that is supposed to be founded upon expertise in cognitive bias, and yet the psychologists’ accusations of such biases are made in a manner that itself exhibits extreme cognitive bias. Unfortunately, the profession has been allowed to get away with this to such an extent that the received wisdom is now that climate change ‘denial’ goes beyond simple foolishness and ill intent and strays into the territory normally occupied by the psychotic.

A good example of such an accusation can be found in an article written by Australian activist, Jeff Sparrow. In a rambling diatribe, he accuses sceptics of engaging in ‘kettle logic’, which is an irrational ability to simultaneously entertain two contradictory conspiracies, usually to avoid having to admit having been wrong. Of course, in an individual, such irrationality would be a sign of madness. Nevertheless, the accusation is made in all seriousness and is intended to apply to all climate change sceptics. Interestingly, however, the only evidence Sparrow offers for the existence of this mass pathology is the ability of sceptics to disagree with each other at conferences and their ability to form conditional arguments (along the lines of ‚I don’t believe x but even if I did there would still be y‘). I think you would have to be mad to find any of this convincing, but such accusations are seriously entertained by psychologists. Somehow they are able to misinterpret incoherent thinking within a group as being multiple cases of incoherent thinking within the individual. This is known as a ‘category error’.

But where it really gets interesting, as far as I am concerned, is when the boot is on the other foot and the accusations of psychosis are made by the sceptic. That’s when the fun starts. That’s when the psychologists really adopt the rampant pose and start clawing at the sceptic’s throat.

Enter the ‘formerly’ reputable…

The theory that seems to have severely rattled the psychologists’ cage is the brainchild of Robert Malone MD, who chose to share his ideas with the world in a Joe Rogan podcast back in December 2021. Malone starts by asking “What the heck happened to Germany in the 20s and 30s? Very intelligent, highly educated population, and they went barking mad.” He suggests that similar mass behaviour can be discerned in the response to the covid-19 epidemic. He dubs it ‘Mass Formation Psychosis’, and he explains it thus:

When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other and has free-floating anxiety in a sense that things don’t make sense, we can’t understand it, 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.

The podcast went viral and the psychology profession went apoplectic. Typical of the negative response was that given in a New England Psychologist article written by John Grohol Psy. D.

If this doesn’t sound particularly scientific or based in psychological science, you’d be right. Malone isn’t a psychologist and doesn’t have any background or experience in psychology, human behavior, or psychiatric research. Instead, his description sounds like some sort of pop psychology mumbo-jumbo from someone who took Psychology 101 in college.

Grohol continues by doubling down on Malone’s lack of required qualifications:

None of his work touched upon psychology or psychological theory. Suddenly, however, Malone feels qualified to express his expertise about “mass formation psychosis.” He knows so little about the field, he basically invented a term (or repeated something he heard once somewhere), instead of using the already well-known and accepted terms, mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness.

This all sounds rather damning, but before I go any further I think it would be worth my while to reflect upon one particular statement made by Grohol that he thinks gets to the heart of Malone’s failure to understand the basics:

Anyone who suggests there’s “free-floating anxiety” that’s “just like hypnosis” has a very limited understanding of what these things mean. People just can’t be hypnotized without their knowledge or consent — that’s not at all how hypnosis works. And while anxiety is indeed a significant issue for many people, it doesn’t “float” from person to person or otherwise become infectious.

My qualifications to discuss psychology may be no better than Malone’s, but I will venture to suggest that the above quote demonstrates, more than any other, just how seriously Grohol has failed to understand Malone’s ideas. As a psychologist, surely Grohol knows that free-floating anxiety is a technical term, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a diffuse, chronic sense of uneasiness and apprehension not directed toward any specific situation or object.” It is in that sense that it floats; it isn’t anchored to anything specific. By saying that it is free-floating, Malone isn’t suggesting that it is an anxiety that transmits from one individual to another; instead he is referring to a chronic and pervasive societal unease exhibited by a decoupled society. Furthermore, by virtue of its detachment from any specific and discernible cause, the unease can be readily co-opted by leaders with an agenda. The impression of hypnosis comes from the readiness by which the masses can be persuaded of the cause of the diffuse societal anxiety, and thereby led.

Anyone, such as I, who has been diagnosed with free-floating anxiety can attest to its irrational nature. The anxiety is intrinsic; it doesn’t need a trigger or explanation. And yet there will always be plenty of environmental factors upon which it can be pinned – if you are so inclined. Malone obviously knows this and adds the insight that societies can exhibit traits that are akin to an individual’s emotional states. But he doesn’t offer the rationale for this comparison and so leaves himself open to accusations of mumbo-jumbo from the likes of Grohol. Grohol simply dismisses the concept of societal anxiety as a category error and further proof of Malone’s incompetence. I think it is anything but, and I’ll tell you why.

Enter the ‘never has been’ reputable…

I would like to remind you at this point that some six months before Malone introduced the world to Mass Information Psychosis I had written an article here at Climate Scepticism espousing a very similar theory. The starting point was to suggest that, at its essence, emotion is the name we give to a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system’s cognition of its internal state. Our bodies are such a system and our central nervous system provides the self-monitoring. Emotion is what we experience as a result. Consequently, insofar as our decision-making relies upon an awareness of our internal state, we are doomed to rely upon emotion to make a decision. Furthermore, since societies are also complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring systems, they too will exhibit decision-making that is essentially emotion-based in the system theoretic sense, i.e. a society’s pre-occupation with its internal state constitutes an essential element of its decision-making. A consequence of this is that, just as individuals can suffer neurotic and phobic anxieties in a literal sense, so can societies in a more abstract sense.

This is not a category error, because in both cases we are dealing with the same class of object, i.e. a decision-making, complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system. One can only start making a category error if one takes the analogy too far in believing an abstract concept such as  ‘society’ can actually experience emotion in the same sense as a conscious entity can. The term ‘anxiety’ is used in an abstract manner when applied to societies, as indeed are terms like ‘panic’, ‘phobia’, ‘psychosis’ and ‘hypnosis’. But there is a legitimacy to the use of this terminology that goes beyond metaphor. Despite his remark about ‚literally‘ becoming hypnotised, I believe that is what Malone is doing. He didn’t use the ‘already well-known and accepted terms, mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness’ because they are quite different to what he was talking about. They are group behaviours that emerge when the emotional states of individuals interact and feedback upon themselves. They result in collective emotional behaviour and, as such, are psychological phenomena. That’s not what I am talking about, and I don’t believe it is what Malone is getting at either. As I put it:

To be clear, I am not saying that societal decision-making is essentially emotional just because the decisions are being made by individuals who are acting emotionally. This may be true, but I am referring to a more profound sense in which society’s decisions are emotionally driven. They are emotional in the sense that the cognition of the internal state of a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system (i.e. society) is the driving force.

Whilst there are similarities between my thoughts on the matter and Malone’s, there are important differences. Firstly, I have chosen to focus upon the importance of internal monitoring as an essential component of emotional phenomena. In particular, I have pointed out that this can lead to phobic anxiety in the individual and, by analogy, to a legitimate concept of societal phobia. I speak, for example, of societies having panic attacks. Malone doesn’t do this, preferring instead to reflect upon free-floating anxiety in the individual and suggesting the possibility of an analogous societal free-floating anxiety. The propensity for society to ‘panic’ is therefore replaced in Malone’s version by a propensity for it to be persuaded to act in a tendentious manner, simply by offering it an after-the-fact rationalisation for its diffuse anxiety. This is a different emphasis to mine but, even so, it isn’t a major divergence. In fact, both theories entertain the idea of diffuse societal anxiety, albeit with different causations (hyper-sensitivity to internal states in my theory, or a ‘decoupled’ society in Malone’s). And both theories recognise a tendency for societies to rationalise such anxiety. As I said:

Having established [through hyper-sensitive self-monitoring] a self-inflicted sense of crisis we have compounded the error by then looking for external threats and causes of internal dysfunction that could possibly explain our extreme agitation.

Put another way, societies take their free-floating anxiety and anchor it to a causation. Furthermore, such anchorage can be easily facilitated by those with an agenda. Consequently:

One has to wonder, if we didn’t obsess so much over the ills of society, what appetite would remain for rebooting it to address climate change.

We band of disreputable brothers

It’s a funny thing, but when Grohol and his fellow professionals looked at Malone’s theory, all they could see was an unqualified charlatan attempting a psychological thesis without even understanding the basics of the subject. I, on the other hand, could see a kindred spirit, crossing disciplines in an effort to understand what seems on the face of it a quite incomprehensible phenomenon – why seemingly intelligent and sane people can be so easily swept up in an insane enterprise. I was not troubled by Malone’s use of non-standard terminology; one would not find it in the cannon of psychology because, at its essence, his wasn’t really a psychological thesis. It’s a theory about control, and the decision-making of what is actually a complex, autonomous, adaptive, self-monitoring system. As such, his thinking, whether he appreciates it or not, benefits from a paradigm that can apply to more than one application area. Moreover, his is an attempt to explain how individuals may find themselves able to entertain personal suboptimal thinking simply in order to fit in with decision-making at the societal level and yet, at no stage, experience any cognitive dissonance.

But let us not kid ourselves here. Malone’s greatest sin was not to overreach himself by proposing an inchoate theory in an area outside of his expertise. It was that he chose to apply himself to finding an explanation for a phenomenon that the orthodoxy does not willingly accept exists. He sought to explain why there was so much eagerness to engage in an irrational project when, as far as the powers that be are concerned, the project is perfectly rational. To those who get to decide who is mad and who is not, he was looking for an explanation for a madness when part of that madness is to declare that only the mad would think an explanation were necessary. That’s what made it so easy for Grohol to see the lack of academic grounding in Malone’s arguments and yet fail to see the wisdom in his metaphor.

When Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook developed their ideas regarding the alleged madness of conspiracy theorists, none of their fellow professionals thought to step forward and point out the category errors upon which they were based. Far from it, they received European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) funding to write them up in a handbook. But when Malone only appears to commit a category error, the whole world explodes in an orgy of indignant rebuttal. At the end of the day, however, this is the asymmetry we have to deal with. Any opposition to the authorized view will be automatically branded as irrational in a way that compliance never will. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. But not everyone has keys to the asylum.

Alice wasn’t too impressed with the Cheshire Cat’s philosophy and objected to being called mad.

‚How do you know I’m mad?‘ said Alice.

‚You must be,‘ said the Cat, `or you wouldn’t have come here.‘

I think I know the feeling. Sometimes there is something irrationally futile about trying to make sense of the world.