On October 20, 2021, Professor Mattias Desmet appeared on episode 331 of the Aubrey Marcus Podcast, titled Why People Willingly Give Up Their Freedoms. Desmet is a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, and also holds a masters degree in statistics.
In the podcast, Desmet said that by May of 2020, it was clear that the statistical models on Covid-19 deaths from the Imperial College London — used by many countries to justify lockdowns — were wrong. He gave the example of Sweden, which the models predicted would have approximately 80,000 deaths due to refusing to lockdown, but actually had about 6,000 deaths over that time. It bothered Desmet that political leaders imposing Covid-19 restrictions claimed to be relying on science and mathematical modeling, even though the data did not seem to support their actions. Desmet said that at that point, “it was a strong sign there were things going on at the psychological level that were really powerful.”
Desmet was also bothered by the lack of consideration of side effects from the Covid-19 lockdowns. He said that “institutions such as the United Nations warned us immediately that there could be more people dying from hunger, from starvation, in developing countries than could possibly die from the virus if no measures were taken at all.” Yet, the mathematical models used to justify lockdowns did not account for collateral deaths that the lockdowns would create.
Desmet started to think about why people were so narrowly focused on the threat of Covid-19 at the cost of ignoring seemingly all other threats to society and to their own lives. By August 2020, he concluded that “what we are dealing with was a large scale phenomena of mass formation.”
Desmet described mass formation as a phenomena where people gain such pleasure in the social cohesion provided by uniting against an enemy that they accept a narrative and solution to deal with that enemy that may be absurd. It can be thought of as a mass intoxication or hypnosis, where people unconsciously attempt to relieve themselves of the pain of social isolation.
He explained that there are four conditions that must be met to facilitate mass formation. In a given society, a lot of people must:
He said that in such a population with general isolation and anxiety, a story provided about a single problem and a solution to deal with that problem can “focus free floating frustration.” He said that people feel connected again in a “heroic struggle” against the provided, singular object of anxiety. Thus, according to Desmet, people will follow the plan not because it is scientific, but because following the plan leads to increased social connection.
According to Desmet, the scholar Gustave Le Bon warned in 1895 that if the process of mass formation continued to strengthen, a new type of state would emerge, a totalitarian state. Desmet said that the psychological process of mass formation is the key distinction between a totalitarian state and a classical dictatorship. He said that “a classical dictatorship is based on a very primitive process of fear the human being has for someone who is stronger, who is in power.” In contrast, a totalitarian state has the willing support of its people.
Desmet asserted that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are two examples of totalitarian states. In the case of the Soviet Union, the aristocracy became the source of anxiety fueling mass formation. In the case of Nazi Germany, Jews became the source of anxiety.
Desmet stated that only about 30% of a population in mass formation are “really hypnotized.” About 40% just goes along with the official narrative, so as to avoid conflict. The remaining 30% actively oppose the narrative.
Desmet described an experiment of psychologist Solomon Asch on the subject of conformity. Asch showed groups of 8 people a picture of 4 different lines, and asked them to identify which lines were the same length. 2 of the lines were the same, and the others were different enough that the answer was obvious at a glance. Each person answered in front of the group. 7 people in the group of 8 were instructed ahead of time to intentionally give the wrong answer. About 75% of the time, the remaining person gave the same, obviously wrong answer as the group.
Aubrey said that Asch concluded there were 2 types of people that gave the wrong answer: 1) those who convinced themselves that their initial impression must be wrong, and 2) those that knowingly gave the wrong answer just to conform with the group. Desmet said that the same 3 classifications of people can be seen in mass formation as can be seen in Asch’s experiment: 1) those who convince themselves they must be wrong, 2) those who just go along with the group, and 3) those who speak out about the truth.
Desmet indicated that for nearly all people, mass formation is an unconscious process, but that some substantial minority does intentionally “manipulate the masses.” He gave the example of Stalin, stating that Stalin believed it was justified to lie so as to move society in the right direction. Aubrey and Desmet agreed that the intentions of leaders in a tyrannical state are generally pure, even though their actions are evil. Desmet stated, “We are dealing with megalomaniac plans...not so much with psychopaths.”
Aubrey asked Desmet what risks he saw in our current society in the context of mass formation. Desmet said that, obviously, there was a risk of the vaccinated committing atrocities against the unvaccinated. He said, however, that totalitarian states do not tend to stop committing atrocities once one “out group” is eliminated. He indicated that if all unvaccinated people were killed or otherwise dealt with by a mass of the vaccinated, the vaccinated mass will further subdivide and start committing atrocities against itself.
Desmet said that Gustave Le Bon said, “The masses always long for a severe and cruel leader.” Desmet said that those caught in mass formation would like to be to told what to do and to lose themselves in the mass. Aubrey suggested that the restrictions imposed become a ritualistic sacrifice that serve to make the mass formation stronger. Forgoing holidays, engaging in lockdowns, or wearing masks pull people together in a shared sacrifice, despite being pointless from a practical perspective, and despite imposing large negative consequences in totality. The absurdity of the coronavirus restrictions ultimately increases peoples’ commitment to them.
According to Desmet, Hannah Arendt warned in the 1950’s that “trends toward totalitarianism will continue, will be world wide, and will be led by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.” Desmet indicated he believed the leaders of the current wave of mass formation were a consortium of technocrats and transhumanists. He asserted the transhumanist element was ironic, because the relationship between people and technology created the social isolation that enabled the current mass formation process to begin to grow at all.
Desmet said that in order to reverse mass formation, those who see the truth must speak out. By speaking out, the approximately 40% of the population that merely complies so as to avoid conflict may flip and join the active dissenters. He suggested mass formation can be thought of as a form of hypnosis, and that the human voice is fundamental in influencing hypnosis and in growing or lessening mass formation. He suggested that speaking out would not stop mass formation, but would make the hypnosis “less deep” and possibly prevent atrocities from occurring. Desmet said that it doesn’t matter where someone speaks out, that even the smallest action of resistance can help push positive change and that the magnitude may compound in a complex system.
Aubrey said he’s encouraging a concept he called “united polarity.” He thought the only antidote to mass formation was to have compassion for people of opposing perspectives. Aubrey focused on the dehumanization of the enemy that occurs in mass formation, and said he felt we can’t stop mass formation while perpetuating dehumanization.
Aubrey said that Václav Havel talked about the importance of “parallel structures.” Desmet said that totalitarian systems always destroy themselves, and that your goal should be join and survive in a parallel structure until the system eats itself.