Over the last months I have regularly been baffled by what I saw happening around me. As more and more data became available, it also became clear that the coronavirus wasn’t as dangerous as we first feared. It certainly didn’t warrant the tremendous damage the corona rules and all the lockdowns were doing. However, no matter how many research papers or statistics I presented, it seemed I could argue until I was blue in the face, but any rational argument would just be ignored by those who supported government measures. And it wasn’t just me who’s being ignored. It’s also thousands of medical professional, including some heavy weights in the field of epidemiology.
And now we’re in another lockdown. Although in the Netherlands it’s called a partial lockdown, it is, in some ways, even stricter than it was in March and April, employing some pretty controversial measures. This week I came across this article by Professor Desmet of the Belgian University of Gent. In this article he explains how a dynamic like this works and how it can come about that something can be so glaringly and obviously not right or reasonable and still we’re being held hostage in name of this virus. I felt the need to translate this article to make it more widely available to others also longing to understand why the hell no one will listen to reason.
‘In the corona crisis, public opinion has been hijacked by absurd judgments’
Professor of clinical psychology Mattias Desmet (University of Gent) explains why during the corona crisis a large part of the population accepts measures that cut deeply into their pleasure, freedom and prosperity.
Take a good look at the illustration below. Which of the line segments A, B and C has the same length as line segment 1? That was the question that American psychologist Solomon Asch asked the participants of his experiment on peer pressure. Each group of eight subjects contained seven of Asch’s employees. Without blinking , they all answered ‘line segment B’.
The eighth participant – the only real test subject – mostly gave the same answer as his predecessors. Only 25 percent consistently expressed what even a blind person can see: not line segment B but line segment C is the same length as line segment 1.
After the experiment, some test subjects said that they did know the right answer but were afraid to argue with the group. More interestingly, others admitted that under pressure from the group, they had begun to doubt their own judgment and eventually took the absurd group judgment as being true.
We have to face it: in the corona crisis, public opinion has also been hijacked by absurd judgments.
The best-known example is, of course, the reported number of corona deaths in residential care centres being far too high because all deaths were counted, but many other reported numbers, such as infection rate and reproduction rate, were unrealistic as well.
However wrong, these reports do determine public opinion. They are vented by experts, often on national television, thus suggesting that these opinions are widely accepted. As in Asch’s experiment, for many people this suffices as proof of their being correct: ‘Surely it cannot be the case that everyone is wrong’, ‘They wouldn’t say it if there’s no truth in it’, etc.
A number of questions arise here: why is a message carried by a large crowd so convincing, even when it is incorrect? How do intelligent people – the experts – get driven to sending such questionable messages out into the world? What dangers are associated with mass psychological phenomena like these and how should we deal with them as a society?
A social climate saturated with unease, fear and lack of meaning
Mass formation ( i.e. the formation of very large groups of people all expressing the same opinions due to expert and peer pressure, red.) often arises in a social climate saturated with unease, fear and lack of meaning (see e.g. the 300 million doses of antidepressants used in Belgium every year and the burnout epidemic). In such atmospheres, the population is extremely sensitive to stories that explain the cause of their fear and thus create a common enemy – the virus – which must then be ‘destroyed’.
This provides psychological gains. Firstly, the fear, which was previously undefinably present in society, now becomes very tangible and therefore mentally more manageable.
Secondly, in the common struggle with ‘the enemy’, disintegrating society regains minimal cohesion, energy and meaning; the fight against corona becomes a mission laden with pathos and group heroism.
United we stand
In more extreme cases, this process puts society into a kind of intoxicated state which also occurs in a crowd singing together or chanting slogans (e.g. in a football stadium). The voice of the individual at that point dissolves into this overwhelmingly vibrating group voice; the individual feels carried by the masses and “inherits” its thrilling energy. What’s sung exactly does not matter; what counts is that it’s being sung together. Asch’s experiment shows the cognitive variant of this process: what one thinks does not matter, what matters is that it is thought together.
As Gustave Le Bon, a French sociologist, noted around 1900, the effect of mass formation resembles that of hypnosis. In both cases, a scary story sucks all the attention towards it and the field of consciousness consequently narrows. Compare it with the circle of light projected by a lamp which shrinks and makes everything that falls outside it disappear into the darkness (see illustration 2).
- Inside the circle of light (blue): Coronavirus; Coronavictims; Corona rules
- Outside the circle of light (from the top, travelling clockwise): Victims of corona rules, e.g. famines, domestic violence, poverty, etc.; Economic damage; Deterioration general health and immunity; Violation of democratic fundamental rights; Violation of privacy; Psychological damage
During the corona crisis you can see this process occur when, for example, victims of the anti-corona rules (e.g. deaths due to emotional and physical neglect in residential care centres, non-corona patients whose treatment has been postponed, victims of aggression indoors, …) are getting hardly any attention and empathy compared to corona victims, (no daily statistics on these victims, no case reports, no testimonials from family members, etc.). They find themselves outside the circle of light.
This lack of empathy should not be confused with vulgar selfishness. Le Bon noted that both mass formation and hypnosis allow individuals to radically ignore their selfish aspirations, even their own pain. With a simple hypnotic procedure, patients can be anaesthetised to such an extent that incisions can be made during surgery without problems. Likewise, during the corona crisis, much of the population is curiously willing to accept measures that ‘cut’ deeply into their pleasure, freedom and prosperity.
The difference between mass formation and hypnosis
But there is also an important difference between mass formation and hypnosis. In hypnosis, only the field of consciousness of the person hypnotised is narrowed; the one who tells the hypnotic story (the hypnotist) is ‘awake’. In mass formation, the person who articulates the story – in this case the expert – has also been mentally hijacked by the story. In fact, the virologist’s field of consciousness has been narrowed even more than that of the population, because of his training (which is one-sidedly focused on viruses) and the secondary benefits the story brings him (excessive prestige, authority, research funding, etc.). This explains the surprising observation of experts making mistakes which wouldn’t easily be made by a layman (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘expert blindness’).
Those who fanatically trust the experts and those who completely distrust them (and see them as conspirators) may be making the same mistake here: they both attribute toxic absolute knowledge (and power) to the experts, the first group in a positive sense, the second in negative. The actual masters of the situation are not the experts but the stories and their underlying ideologies; the stories own everyone and don’t belong to anyone; everyone plays a role in it, nobody knows the full script (not even all American hero Bill Gates).
The shared social story becomes immune to criticism and confirms itself
Mass formation ensures that the shared social story becomes immune to criticism and confirms itself to absurd proportions. For example: victims who are the result of the corona rules themselves (e.g. due to loneliness in residential care centres) are, paradoxically, used to argue in favour of the rules. They are, in all innocence, added to the general excess mortality and thus used to justify the rules.
The UN has warned that famines caused by the lockdowns could soon be causing millions of victims. We run the risk that these deaths too will be incorrectly added to the corona victims and that fear, and with it support for stricter rules, will increase exponentially. In this way, society can end up in a vicious circle: the stricter the rules, the more victims; the more victims, the stricter the rules.
Don’t underestimate what this could lead to in the future. The idea that has been uttered regarding the housing of infected individuals in isolation centres is at the moment still considered a “disproportionate” measure. But if society remains mentally glued to a scary virological story, all it takes is a rise in fear to consider this too “necessary for public health.”
In combination with the manipulability of corona tests and a feudal redistribution of power (governors and mayors gain unseen power due to the impasse of national politics), you can spot what’s appearing on the horizon: arbitrarily apprehending, isolating and ‘treating’ ‘contaminated ‘ people. Social systems tending towards totalitarian power use different narratives, but they all do more or less the same.
We need to recognise this psychological symptom for the signal that it is
The mass psychological dynamic that arises around the real core of the corona epidemic shows all the characteristics of a psychological symptom and should be analysed as such. Just like any individual symptom, it functions as a signal. It refers to an underlying social problem, described earlier in this article as a lack of meaning and associated epidemic anxiety and depression.
This problem can be felt in the workplace, among others. Now that the lockdown and the accompanying leave (which did not really feel like leave) are almost over, we have to slowly return to the old work regime. Many of us will again be confronted with the experience described in the bestseller Bullshit Jobs: the working day seems to be a succession of obligations that one has no choice but to fulfil at high speed without knowing who actually benefits.