Individual and social psychology offers valuable insights into hysterical personal and small group behaviour under COVID, but how can psychology explain the society-wide mass hysteria? Enter the theory of ‘mass formation psychosis’. Psychosis is a severe mental disorder which causes, in an individual, abnormal thought processes at odds with reality. Psychosis at a mass population level, however, occurs when everyone, simultaneously, goes psychotic together. Think of it as the way a hive frenzy develops when each individual bee gets extremely angry because every other bee is getting angry.
Dr. Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ghent in Belgium, has been Johnny-on-the-spot during COVID by rebranding mass hysteria as ‘mass formation psychosis’ (MFP). Desmet’s theory has its antecedents in crowd psychology, especially the collective madness of crowds. In his formulation, MFP arises from the dynamic of individuals acting as a crowd in projecting their own free-floating, generalised personal anxieties, frustration and aggression onto the social construct of a COVID ‘pandemic’ and providing a sense of renewed ‘social belonging’ to mitigate the anxiety.
In MFP, sacrifice (lockdown, for example) and heroism (such as self-quarantine) are called upon whilst opportunities for virtuous behaviour proliferate (‘I’m masking up, getting jabbed, self-isolating for your benefit’). All participants in the COVID-driven MFP reinforce the mass psychosis by passing on their latest traumatic fears to each other in a closed-system, positive-feedback loop (‘Oh my God, now it’s Omicron! It’s highly contagious! Run for the hills!’) whilst thrashing around for scapegoats to make them feel subjectively safer because all their pet interventions have delivered nothing of any benefit.
When MFP sets in, we observe the strange phenomenon of people’s apparent indifference to their own deprivations arising from lockdowns and other restrictions, their almost religious fervour for experimental medical procedures, and their disdain for considering anything on the cost side of the cost-benefit ledger. This is a consequence of the “narrowing of the field of attention” to what the COVID hypnotists deem to be the totalising issue of fearing the virus and following all the orders issued by ‘experts’.
Intelligence is no defence against MFP. How many otherwise sensible friends or family, some with many years of higher education, seemingly underwent a radical transformation overnight, their vocabulary suddenly reduced to the regurgitation of media headlines and politicians’ talking points, preaching deliverance by Big Pharma and aggressively filtering out awkward data whilst becoming “radically intolerant of dissonant voices”, as Desmet puts it. People who these new acolytes might once have mocked as typical politicians – Scott Morrison, Mark McGowan, St Jacinda of the Lockdown – become objects of their new-found puppy-love in a freakish cult of personality. It’s as if the credentialed class has truly been recruited by a cult, so striking has been the changed mental outlook and behaviour.
All those captured by MFP necessarily deny the existence, a priori, of MFP, dismissing it as some sort of disreputable alt-right dog-whistle. The loudest scoffers include those sporting a Trump Derangement Syndrome hangover, those who are triggered by the chanting of “Let’s Go Brandon”, and the always-voluble woke obsessives.
MFP is a precursor for the development of totalitarianism, according to Desmet, who has credibly drawn parallels between the collective psychology of the global Covid mania and the mentality that developed in 1930s Germany, where a highly intelligent, educated and civilised population went dangerously loopy. Then, like now, emotion ruled reason as manipulated fears activated people’s lower brain stem — the primitive, ‘reptilian’ part of the brain. Fear is as primal an emotion as it gets and the instinct for self-preservation, irrespective of the reality of any putative threat, swamps any activity by the rational, reflective pre-frontal cortex.
For those who happen to be on the receiving end of the resultant fear-driven hostility and scapegoating, the result is demonisation, marginalisation, exclusion, discrimination and potentially worse. Medical apartheid? Tick. Compulsory medical experimentation? Tick. COVID camps in Australia? Couldn’t possibly happen here, except it is. National Socialism couldn’t happen in Germany, either, thought many Germans (including Jews) even as it was happening in the homelands of Beethoven and Einstein. COVID Australia is not Nazi Germany, of course, but it would be folly to ignore the similar underlying psychology of both.
MFP is, fortunately, not monolithic. It boasts the True Believers totally lost to the propaganda and for whom nothing – data, charts, logic, humanity — cuts through the spell that has them in its thrall. Their number includes the militant COVID Karens and the other citizen MFP militia who police the supermarket aisles for correct ‘social distancing’ and who patrol the airplane cabins ready to verbally insult and physically assault the non-maskers. They salivate at the prospect of making the unjabbed suffer.
At the opposite pole, however, are those who are totally immune to the hysteria and who never fell into the COVID trance or who have since snapped out of it. These are the sceptical-minded, independent thinkers who lack the requisite suggestibility to social hypnosis. This group tends to be dominated by those who did not fall for any of the preceding, manufactured hysterias (BLM, #MeToo, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Russiagate, end-of-world climate scares, etc.) and are therefore predominantly of conservative political inclination (with a few maverick leftists thrown in like Naomi Wolf ).
In the middle are those whose belief in the new COVID hegemon is less than fervent, who suspect that much of the response to the virus is mere political symbolism but who nevertheless go along with the demands it makes of them. Their greatest illusion is believing that compliance with their new restricted freedoms will actually work to restore liberty, which is not how tyranny works (‘Keep your mask on just for another month … or two … or three …’; ‘Only one booster? No soup for you!’). Yet, their patience has limits, and the pent-up force of human nature (for socialising, for breathing without a suffocation mask, etc.) can not be held back forever and could translate into lost votes for the incumbent political class.
Mass Formation Psychosis has much to recommend it, especially for those who find the explanations for COVID as an organised, global conspiracy (whether for ‘transhumanism’, depopulation or some nefarious attempt at a New World Order masterminded by Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum) rather strong meat when boringly quotidian political calculation (“we must be seen to be doing something; it would be political suicide to just ‘let it rip’”) and groupthink combined to tip the world into a moment of blind panic. From there, the basic psychology of crowds did the rest.
Political Psychology and COVID
The standard binary categories used in the academic sub-discipline of political psychology are ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’, or right-wing and left-wing political attitudes and beliefs. The COVID divide along this spectrum has been stark, with ‘liberals’ turning out to be unscientific authoritarians, and crazy, right-wing nutters — for so they are depicted — being the sane advocates for freedom and for science.
Leftists have been by far the worst exaggerators of virus lethality. A Rasmussen survey in August 2021 found that twice as many Democrats (28%) as Republicans (14%) thought that more than 10 per cent of their country’s total population has been felled by the virus, which if true would amount to 33.5 million deaths, rather than the current official figure of 900,000 American lives claimed either with or by COVID. Surveys published in the academic psychological literature have shown that so-called liberals are far more likely to support “drastic Covid containment policies” than are their conservative counterparts.
Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to “distrust social distancing edicts” and complain that health mandates violate their right to assemble, travel, and work. The most pertinent psychological dimension to this broad political difference is political authoritarianism, a concept consisting of attributes such as ideological dogmatism, a preference for conformity, a willingness to coerce and enforce behavioural standards, punitiveness toward perceived enemies, and a strong belief in hierarchy. ‘Right-wing authoritarianism’ has been a staple of political psychology research, undoubtedly due to the general leftist tilt of its researchers and practitioners, leaving ‘left-wing authoritarianism’ a largely unexplored area of academic analysis.
Joseph Manson gives it a good workout in a paper surveying 528 Americans on their degree of endorsement of 19 authoritarian COVID ‘containment’ policies in April 2020. He found that whilst authoritarians of both right and left favourably viewed restrictions on the “right to protest, summary criminal penalties without the right to trial, and surveillance via a mandatory tracking app”, it was left-wing authoritarians who stood out as being most strongly in favour of censorship (agreeing that governments should have the power to prohibit ‘misinformation’) and supportive of the imposition of restrictions through executive rule (what we experience in Australia as public health orders by state CHOs and premiers) without recourse to legislation. Left-wing authoritarians were also found to be more likely to report violators of social distancing rules to police, and to support the devolution of all authority to public health experts. Political authoritarianism is not a pretty sight in anyone’s hands but the left-wing version has the uglier features, particularly in the censoring of open debate, short-circuiting democratic norms and the enthusiastic practice of vigilantism.
Left-wing authoritarians also came out particularly poorly in research by T. H.Costello (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2021) who surveyed 7,258 Americans. Left-wing authoritarianism was measured by the level of agreement with statements such as “The rich should be stripped of their belongings and status”, “If a few of the worst Republican politicians were assassinated, it wouldn’t be the end of the world” and “Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and other conservative media outlets should be prohibited from broadcasting their hateful views”.
Costello found that, relative to right-wing authoritarians, left-wing authoritarians were “higher in negative emotionality, and expressed stronger support for a political system with substantial centralized state control”. He also found that left-wing authoritarianism “powerfully predicts behavioural aggression and is strongly correlated with participation in political violence”. Not so angelic, then, these loud advocates of tolerance, compassion, caring, non-violence and the democratic contest of ideas, after all.
We see confirmatory, real-world evidence of this in a January 2022 Rasmussen survey of 1,016 ‘likely voters’ in the US which found that a whopping 59 per cent of Democrat voters would favour a government policy requiring that the unvaxxed “remain confined to their homes at all times, except for emergencies” (by contrast, 79 per cent of Republicans thought this beyond the pale). Almost half (48 per cent) of Democrat voters think governments should be able to fine or imprison individuals who “publicly question the efficacy of the existing COVID vaccines on social media, television, radio, or in online or digital publications” (compared to just 14 per cent of Republicans). Almost one in two (47 per cent) of Democrat voters think the government should be able to put a “tracking system, like an ankle monitor or a locked collar, on people who refuse the vaccine” (only 14 per cent of Republicans thought so). Deaf to precedent, 45 per cent of Democrats would favour governments requiring unvaxxed citizens to temporarily live in “designated facilities or locations” until they roll up their sleeves (78 per cent of Republicans strongly oppose this). Camps, again! The ‘anti-fascist’ Left have finally lost their historically-illiterate minds.
But whilst the size of this leftist cohort of totalitarians-in-waiting should be seen as a threat to liberal democratic society, some psychologists are only too eager to target the opposite political pole as the real danger. In ‘To comply or not to comply? A latent profile analysis of behaviours and attitudes during the COVID-19 pandemic’ (published by the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney), Kleitman et al conclude that those who resisted COVID health orders and who expressed support for ‘freedom’ (the quotation marks are the authors’) are concentrated on the conservative end of the political spectrum, tended to be “extroverts of lower agreeableness and intellect, exhibited amoral ideology, used “maladaptive coping strategies”, had a low view of government truthfulness and used substances (like drinking alcohol)”.
“Alarmingly” (again, the word is that of the authors), “the non-compliant group were more likely than the compliant group to leave their home [during lockdown] to meet friends/family, for religious reasons, because they are bored, or to exercise their right to freedom” thus, by implication, spreading disease with the greatest of ease. Note the loaded language – ‘disagreeable’, ‘low intellect’, ‘amoral’, ‘maladapted’, ‘untrusting-of-government’ and imputations of alcoholism amongst those covering up their personal and political deficiencies by blathering about ‘freedom’.
In the eyes of Australia’s finest academic psychologists, any departure from the official response to the virus must be due to either intellectual shortcomings or dysfunctional personal attributes. No leftist academic bias in the Sydney Uni Psych faculty showing there!
As someone who has straddled both left and right camps politically, to me leftists seem to be psychologically askew — generally miserable, angry and paranoid (over Brexit, Trump, all things woke and, now, COVID) whilst the right are far more secure, comfortable and generally happy people (being driven mad by all the COVID nonsense but remaining civil about it). I know who I would rather share a pint with.
The COVID commanders — an actual title in Victoria, where the current occupant’s former occupation involved failing to make the trains run on time — have been skilled in using psychology. The fantastical propaganda about an ‘apocalyptic pandemic’ and the worldwide mass hysteria it has generated have been a textbook examples of psyops (psychological operations). Psyops is defined by those who should know, the US Department of Defense, as “the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviours”. The aim is behaviour change through “tools or mind-control techniques such as hypnosis, mass formation, censorship, security theatre, use of fear to drive anxiety and propaganda” to produce cooperation from a submissive populace.
During COVID we have been “controlled, nudged, censored and lied to” by authoritarian public health experts and their political handlers in order to enrol us in their hardline, ineffective and disastrous pandemic response to a virus of average, and so-far declining, virulence. It is a policy response which they introduced in a moment of panic in order to create the illusion that the almighty State could control a virus. Now, as the absurdities are increasingly laid bare, such a determined gulling of the citizenry can never be disowned or publicly regretted because that dose of honesty would expose rank incompetence and collective stupidity as the guiding lights of the COVID response ever since Wuhan became a household word.
We have been made to love our new COVID chains (lockdowns, masks, closed borders, ‘restrictions’ of all kinds, coerced experimental medicines). Psychologists on the UK Government’s ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ (colloquially referred to as the ‘Nudge Unit’) had aimed to inflate levels of fear and anxiety in the populace and promote feelings of self-virtue through their strategic decision to use covert psychological strategies — or ‘nudges’ — to promote compliance with the restrictions and mandates.
The ‘nudgers’ believed that ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent’ [i.e. realistic] about the virus, and they recommended ‘using hard-hitting emotional messaging’ to achieve this. Industrial-scale, relentless propaganda, and control of the language (calling the virus ‘novel’ and ‘unprecedented’, training people to dread daily ‘case’ counts, etc.), were the age-old techniques used. True, they were more ‘shove’ than ‘nudge’, but the desired result was achieved. Those who never stray from the leftist intellectual reservation of the ABC/Guardian/Conversation were putty in the hands of the psyops team.
Fortunately, psyops can be defended against through counter-psyops. Ask yourself, for example, these questions: ‘Have I been too vulnerable to fear, too afraid to stand out, too ready to comply, too ready to obey?’ ‘Would I have argued my corner that the rest of the group was wrong about the line-lengths?’. ‘Would I have been one of those who turned the electric-shock knob all the way up as instructed by experts in white coats, or should I have bailed early?’. ‘Would I have made a good camp guard, or smight I have joined the resistance?’.
As the wonderfully acerbic Laura Perrins puts it about the anti-human pandemic rules that our officials put in place,
So yes, I do blame the officials who enforced the rules, the snitchers, the shamers, boomers and the Karens. You were all taken for fools. A minority may even have enjoyed the rules while they were there: the power, the preening, the virtue signalling, the shaming of others. Now you have been exposed as the cruel, vacuous boot-lickers that you are.
Knowing what the COVID psyops team are up to will stop you running pell-mell from the great manufactured fear into the constraining arms of Big Brother, prepared to do his every bidding. ‘Face your fear’ is sage psychological advice; assess risk rationally and act accordingly. Take personal responsibility for dealing with whatever threat, if any, the virus poses to you instead of blindly obeying the State for what it calls the common good. Stay sane, stay sceptical.
There is no need to go full Amish, but do make it a point to turn off the idiot box in the corner of the room. If you are still listening to the ABC, stop. I have not gone near the National Broadcaster’s output for two years (not even the cricket on the radio – where ‘COVID protocols’ are cited as if unchallengeable inscriptions on stone tablets … and don’t get me started on ‘batters’ replacing batsmen!). There have been vanishingly few benefits from all the COVID bollocks, but breaking the ABC habit of a lifetime has been one of them. Believe me, it will do wonders for you overall psychological and mental health.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from COVID and psychology, however, comes from the research into political psychology: to be right about COVID, be Right.
Where not otherwise cited in the text, the following psychological research studies were referenced for this article.
Bogg and Milad, Demographic, Personality, and Social Cognition Correlates of Coronavirus Guideline Adherence in a U.S. Sample, Health Psychology December 2020 https://doi.apa.org/fulltext/2020-88222-002.html).
Götz, F. M., Gvirtz, A., Galinsky, A. D., & Jachimowicz, J. M. How personality and policy predict pandemic behavior: Understanding sheltering-in-place in 55 countries at the onset of COVID-19. American Psychologist, 2021, 76(1) https://doi.apa.org/fulltext/2020-76208-001.html
Vania Rolóna, Glenn Geher, Jennifer Link, Alexander, Mackiel, Personality correlates of COVID-19 infection proclivity: Extraversion kills, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 180, October 2021, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.110994
Forsyth, D. R. (2020). Group-level resistance to health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic: A groupthink approach. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 24(3), 139-152. https://doi.apa.org/fulltext/2020-59628-001.html
Omid V. Ebrahimi, Asle Hoffart, Sverre Urnes Johnson, Physical Distancing and Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Factors Associated With Psychological Symptoms and Adherence to Pandemic Mitigation Strategies, Clinical Psychological Science, March 2021 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702621994545
Jasper Van Assche, Emanuele Politi, Pieter Van Dessel, Karen Phalet, To punish or to assist? Divergent reactions to ingroup and outgroup members disobeying social distancing, British Journal of Social Psychology, June 2020 https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjso.12395
Robert K. Henderson, Simone Schnall, Disease and Disapproval: COVID-19 Concern is Related to Greater Moral Condemnation, Evolutionary Psychology, June 2021 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/14747049211021524