“If we make rationality the basis of everything,” Mattias Desmet says, “we arrive in a completely irrational society.”
In a recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek interviews Mattias Desmet, a clinical psychology professor and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” Desmet is a leading expert on the phenomenon known as “mass formation,” a prelude to totalitarianism that can occur when large numbers of people feel isolated and free-floating anxiety is prevalent.
Jan Jekielek: You wrote “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” in the context of the coronavirus mania, as you describe it, but you were thinking about these things well before COVID was around.
Mattias Desmet: In 2017, I started to gather ideas and thoughts about totalitarianism. I had noticed that a new kind of totalitarianism was emerging in our society—not a fascist or a communist totalitarianism, but a technocratic totalitarianism that relied more and more on technological control to tackle objects of anxiety in society, like terrorism and climate change. A major part of the population and many leaders seemed inclined to believe that only technological control, which also controlled private lives, could deal with all the emerging problems in our society, real or imagined.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me about your field of study and how you started thinking about these things.
Mr. Desmet: I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Later on in my career, I received a master’s degree in statistics after I became interested in the problems with academic research. In 2005, it became clear that most academic research was flawed. For instance, John Ioannidis, professor of medical statistics at Stanford University, wrote this wonderful paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” I was immediately fascinated by the problem of flawed research and started to study it. I also became interested in the kinds of flawed information that circulate in society.
Many people, in a very strange way, believe in narratives and information that are utterly absurd. They are incapable of seeing that a narrative or disinformation can’t be true.
That stimulated my interest in this phenomenon of mass formation, which I’ve been studying now for about 10 years. Mass formation explains why some people can believe so fanatically in a narrative that they become radically intolerant of dissonant voices, and why they may stigmatize and try to destroy the people who don’t go along with the narrative, as if it’s their ethical duty to do so.
I was also aware that this kind of mass formation leads to the emergence of totalitarian states. When the coronavirus crisis started, I knew this was exactly what was going on. Many people seemed in the grip of statistical information that was, by my observation, radically wrong. I also noticed how a major part of the population stigmatized everyone who didn’t buy into the narrative and was willing to exclude others from the public space if they didn’t conform to the dominant ideology.
Everything I had studied in recent years was now happening. I spoke out, published some opinion papers, and eventually wrote “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” which examines how this phenomenon of mass formation works.
Mr. Jekielek: You talk about how this mechanistic view of the world leads to totalitarianism. Can you reprise that for us?
Mr. Desmet: People often confuse a totalitarian state with a classical dictatorship, which is completely different. A classical dictatorship is based on a simple and primitive psychological mechanism in which the population fears the aggressive potential of a small group: the so-called dictatorial regime.
A totalitarian state is different. It’s always based on the so-called phenomenon of mass formation. A segment of the population, usually 20, 25, or 30 percent, becomes fanatically convinced of a certain narrative and ideology, like the racist ideology of Nazi Germany or the materialist ideology of Soviet Marxism.
In the end, this part of the population—together with a few leaders—takes control of the state.
This new state system, which began in the 20th century, not only controls the public space, as a classical dictatorship does, but also controls the private space. The people that so fanatically believe the narrative that led to the mass formation are willing to report anyone, even family members, to the state.
Mr. Jekielek: In your book, you discuss mass formation and the atomization of the individual.
Mr. Desmet: Mass formation emerges when specific conditions are met in a society. The most crucial condition, and the root cause of mass formation, is that many people must feel lonely and disconnected from their natural and social environment.
Throughout history, the number of people who felt disconnected was never as high as just before the corona crisis. Worldwide, 30 percent of the population claimed to have no meaningful relationships except through the internet. And once people are in this disconnected state, they will typically start to experience purposelessness or the lack of meaning in life. So first you have this disconnection and loneliness, and then you have the lack of meaning.
As a result, people develop a so-called free-floating anxiety, frustration, or aggression. They feel this way without really knowing why. Meanwhile, under these conditions, a narrative is distributed through the mass media indicating an object for their anxiety and providing a strategy to deal with it.
This object can be Jews, witches, Muslims, or the aristocracy—it doesn’t matter. Someone indicates an object of anxiety and provides a strategy to deal with it, and you see this radical willingness in the population to go along. From then on, people have a sense of control. They have an object on which they can focus their aggression and frustration.
They also start to feel connected again. A new kind of social bond emerges.
But this new social bond isn’t formed because individuals connect to other individuals. It’s formed because individuals connect to a collective. All the energy is sucked away from the bonds between individuals and invested in the bond between the individual and the collective.
That explains why during the corona crisis, if their neighbor had an accident, people no longer helped him unless they had surgical gloves or a mask. If their parents were dying, they accepted that they weren’t allowed to visit them. It was all in the name of solidarity.
That’s also why, in a totalitarian state, everybody is willing to report someone they think is disloyal to the collective. That’s the mind-boggling mechanism of mass formation, which is extremely strong.
It’s exactly the same as hypnosis, which is very simple, actually. It just means taking someone’s attention away from a larger reality and focusing all that psychological energy on one small aspect of reality. It’s as if the rest of reality doesn’t exist anymore.
During the pandemic, the attention of an entire population was focused on one small aspect of reality, namely the coronavirus and the corona measures. Many seemed incapable of taking into account other aspects of reality, such as the [number of] children who would starve in the developing countries as a consequence of the disrupted economy.
I tried several times to show people: “Look, we have the victims claimed by the coronavirus, but we have all these other victims. Don’t you see them as well?” All these counter-arguments had no impact on their decision making.
That was one of the clearest signs that a large-scale mass formation was happening. Suddenly there were two camps. One group bought into the mainstream narrative, and the other group felt it was absurd. The dividing line between these two groups ran through all other group formations. That typically happens during a mass formation.
Mr. Jekielek: The people imposing these COVID decisions on populations just keep doubling down, irrespective of the flaws in the evidence.
Mr. Desmet: That’s the problem, of course. If we believe we’re completely rational, we become blind to all other subjective factors. That’s why I believe that rationality or rational understanding can never be the basis of human living. The only thing that can really organize society in a humane way are ethical principles, the eternal principles of humanity. We have to think rationally, of course, but we should understand that rationality in itself can never grasp the full essence of our human existence or the essence of everything around us. We can never completely reduce the things around us—plants, trees, animals, human beings, and all nature—into the categories of our own logical understanding.
If we make rationality the basis of everything, in the end we arrive in a completely irrational society. That’s what the corona crisis shows us now. People think that they behaved rationally, but upon closer consideration, it’s clear that their behavior in most respects was radically irrational and self-destructive.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.