Mass Formation and Consequent Totalitarian Behavior in Homo Sapiens
“There’s a load lifted from his shoulders with the discovery of his disease.” (from Jethro Tull, "Thick as a Brick")
While writing my April 27th posting regarding the disturbing apparent increase in frequency of individual adult-age immaturity within the US over the last 60 years or so, I kept wondering if the science of psychology has examined changes in group behavior consequent of such a shift in background (‘new normal’) human nature. I could find references discussing matters related to normal and abnormal individual psychology everywhere but nothing much to speak of concerning consequent group psychology and group behavior of homo sapiens.
A recently posted video link on Norman Pilon’s blog showed me that the science of psychology has not, after all, neglected group psychology. The video-taped interview of Dr. Mattias Desmet,a Belgian clinical psychology professor working at the University of Ghent, provides a description of an established predictive psychological model explaining the rapid emergence of rather odd and extreme behaviors in a wide variety of governments and their host populations coincident with the COVID19 virus pandemic.
Individual Ailments Beget Group Ailments
According to the group psychological model Desmet explains and describes,four different predisposing factors hosted by many individuals can emerge and combine at the group level to abruptly produce, and then unreflectingly and energetically support, totalitarian government actions.
You might recall that totalitarian states, when they have reached full-monty expansion, are characterized by political repression, very strong control of the economy, large-scale censorship and mass surveillance, limited freedom of movement, and the use of state terrorism. To varying degrees, all of these governmental characteristics have indeed been, and are being, exhibited in many Western nations and in some US states in response to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.
According to Desmet’s video taped presentation, the simultaneous existence of four factors in many members of a population prime a society for exhibition of the overly-focused (“tunneling”) group and individual behavior that supports totalitarianism:
A lack of sensemaking in individual lives;
Abundant presence of free-floating anxiety; and,
Similar (consequent) abundance of free-floating psychological discontent.
If these four factors are present in enough members of any given society, Desmet says the society in question is at risk for the ‘crystallizing’ action of “mass formation” where large numbers of discontented, anxious, confused, and isolated people simultaneously and suddenly seize upon some single apparent threat and give it their entire attention and energy. The basic reason for this attention and energy seizure, according to Desmet, is that putting focus on a single apparent threat provides immediate and palpable relief from a constellation of the longstanding chronic pressures of social isolation, lack of sensemaking, and free-floating anxiety and discontent. This mobilization of individual attention and energy against some single perceived threat unfortunately, according to Desmet’s explanation of the phenomena, segues easily into increasingly totalitarian government behavior.
Desmet believes that this is exactly what has happened and is happening to greater or lesser degrees all over the globe in response to the COVID19 virus pandemic. He posits that – judging from measures of high and increasing drug use, increased job burnout and economic dissatisfaction, and increasing social isolation – that prior to the arrival of COVID19 a significant number of humans were extremely uncomfortable with their lives. With the arrival of the virus, however, they were able to unload their longstanding unfocused anxiety and discontent onto the ‘COVID19 crisis’, thereby obtaining a welcome and immediate release from their chronic discomforts and tensions. Desmet refers to the immediate feeling of relief felt by those previously heavily burdened with isolation, lack of sensemaking, and free-floating anxiety and discontent as a “mental intoxication”.
He says, further:
From this state of mental intoxication you can explain all of the rest of the phenomena of totalitarianism. The mental intoxication leads to a narrowing of the field of attention, it makes people only see what is indicated by the [mainstream] narrative. For instance, they see the victims of the corona virus, but do not seem to see at the cognitive level the collateral damage of the victims claimed by the lockdowns.
Mass formation [then] is actually a symptomatic solution for a real psychological problem. In my opinion, this crisis in the first place is a large societal and psychological crisis, much more than a biological crisis, let’s say.
As a consequence of mass formation people do not get egotistic at all. Rather, to the contrary, mass formation focuses your attention so much on one point that you can take everything from people, their psychological and physical well-being, their material well-being, and they will not notice it all.
Under mass hypnosis [mass formation] and subsequent totalitarianism [however], people become radically intolerant of dissident voices and so someone tells another story, or claims the official story is wrong, then this [dissenting] person threatens to wake the people up and they will get angry because they are confronted [again] with the initial anxiety and initial psychological discontent, and so they direct all their aggression at these dissonant voices – and at the same time they are radically tolerant for their leaders, for the people who pronounce the mainstream narrative.
In summary, joining with others to deal with a perceived crisis extinguishes the social isolation problem that plagues many people. Likewise, having a concrete and apparently serious problem to deal with provides sensemaking and a home for any previous free-floating anxiety. Oddly enough, working on an evidently serious problem jointly with the rest of the humanity makes the discontented at least temporarily content. Unfortunately, according to Desmet’s group psychology model presentation, this sort of mass formation and its associated totalitarian state misbehavior never proceed and end well. Historically, as a totalitarian state is becoming well established its opponents are first squashed, and then the state, like in Stalin’s Russia, inexorably starts ‘eating its own young’.
Who Is and Isn’t Immune to the Infection of Mass Formation?
Desmet is somewhat cryptic about what characteristics distinguish those who join in with a mass formation and eventually support totalitarian government behavior from those who do not do so:
Concerning the question why some people are immune to mass formation – that is a very good question. The group that is immune is always highly diverse, they come from all political orientations, from all social classes. That’s something that was described already [for example] in the Dreyfus case.
What makes people immune? I think to answer this question we need to go really deeply into individual psychology and to ask ourselves in what way do people try to establish psychological stability. Some people always do it by going along with the group, and other people do it much more by staying very close to what they think is reasonable.And both these things – identifying with the group and, on the other hand, trying to be as reasonable as possible – both these things give a specific kind of psychological stability and psychological strength.
I think there is a tendency to independent thinking, this is characteristic of people who are more or less immune to mass formation.
Desmet further explains:
Usually it is only about 30% [of a population that gets] grasped in a mass phenomenon or hypnosis. An additional 35-45% usually does not want to raise a dissonant voice in the public space because they are scared of the consequences. So, usually about 70% who shut up – 30% because they are convinced by the mainstream narrative and 40% because they don’t dare to speak out. And then there is an additional 20-25-30% who does not go along with the narrative and says it in certain situations.
What Can Be Done to Minimize Chances for Full Development of Totalitarianism during and after Mass Formation?
Desmet states, supporting the practice of free speech:
Gustave Le Bon said, for instance, that it is very difficult if mass formation happens at the very large scale in a society, it is very difficult to wake up the masses [as to what is truly going on]. He says that usually you cannot do this, it is impossible to do this because the masses only wake up after a lot of destruction usually. But he says if people who do not agree with the mass narrative, if they continue to talk they prevent the masses from fomenting their large crimes. So, it is very important: you can make the [mass] hypnosis less deep by continuing to talk – so that is what we all have to do, I think.
The Real Crisis and Danger, According to Desmet’s Reading of Things
Desmet finally cautions:
Even if you succeed in waking up the masses now, they will fall prey to a different story in a few years and they would be hypnotized again if we do not succeed in solving the real problem of this crisis; namely, why did we as a society get in the state that a large part of the population feels anxious, depressed, feels a lack of sensemaking, feels emotionally isolated? That’s the real problem. If we do not succeed in finding out where this problem comes from, then the masses will always be susceptible to leaders who try to lure them into a mass formation. So, I think the real question in this crisis is what is there on our view of man and our world, and on the way in which we look on life, that makes us experience a lack of sensemaking. In my opinion, I think we must conclude it is something in our materialistic, mechanistic view of man and the world that leads up to radical destruction of the real social structures and social bonds and the feeling that life makes sense. If you believe that human beings are biological machines, then this implies, by definition, that life is senseless.
What would be the sense of a life that is reduced for a human being of [being only] a little mechanistic part of a larger universe? If you look at a human being like that, I am afraid you end up concluding that life is meaningless, that you don’t really have to invest energy in meaningful social relations, that you don’t have to follow ethical principles, and in this way you destroy your psychological energy and your connectedness and end up in free-floating anxiety and so on.
Totalitarianism and mass formation always have one main characteristic – they are always self-destructive. In one way or another, the masses and the totalitarian systems are only capable of destruction, never for construction. So, it was very striking no matte what totalitarian leaders such as Stalin or Hitler did, it always ended up a failure and it only ended up in destruction. So, that’s for me, that’s one of the very dangerous things in this situation.
Hat tip to Barry H. for mentioning this find of his to me. See https://ugetube.com/watch/prof-mattias-desmet-the-psychology-of-covid-19-ovalmedia_mADO63ZIGnwU3MJ.html for the English portion of the one hour and 8 minute long video-taped interview.
Model developed incrementally and cumulatively by Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustave_Le_Bon), William McDougall (1871-1938: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_McDougall_(psychologist), and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt).
Recently reported examples of Western countries with relatively small populations that are approaching full-monty totalitarian state behavior include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (https://off-guardian.org/2021/08/23/australia-is-going-full-fascist-but-resistance-is-growing/). Largely urban US states with similar magnitude populations evidently pursuing the same developmental track include California and New York. Several other ‘blue’ states like Minnesota and Michigan initially began following this same track, but this behavior has since been moderated, apparently under the influence of those states’ more rural inhabitants.
See Mullainathan and Shafir’s book on scarcity referenced here (https://larryturner.substack.com/p/the-vicious-cycle-of-scarcity-heres) for a discussion of “tunneling”. During the act of tunneling, human attention is so focused on a single matter that nearly all else occurring at the same time is not perceived or responded to. In addition to this perception problem, Mullainathan and Shafir report that individual human intelligence also (temporarily) decreases almost one standard deviation under such tunneling conditions – making people with otherwise normal intelligence perform cognitively as if they were instead ‘borderline deficient’. This single finding perhaps explains a whole lot about a major source of the general confusion concerning the objective nature of the COVID19 pandemic and other matters associated with that pandemic.
I’m guessing that Desmet is lumping ‘inner-directed’ and ‘outer-directed’ people in a single class that receives its behavioral cues from a group of outside-others and/ or inside-others, and is then referring to the people who are immune as those who conform generally but characteristically reserve the right to decide matters for themselves under some circumstances (i.e., the autonomous). See The Lonely Crowd by Riesman.
The only part where I tend to disagree is when he postulates that mass formation is not ego driven. It certainly is ego driven on both sides. Virtue signalling, and following orders, I maintain, is definitely ego driven. "I am good, I am virtuous, I follow orders (and make sure everyone else follows suit)" are all ego statements.
Fascinating article, Larry; like Stephanie I'm in Canada too, but I've watched the descent into "unsanity" here for many years so am I believe less saddened than worried about the behaviour of the until recently rational. (As it's October, I think the zombie is a better analogy than the dementing). I wonder if you'd be interested in appearing on my public affairs program to discuss this, Grundvilk, and other matters of the moment? I can be reached at: lex at highspeedplus dot com. Here's my show site link if you're interested...