Radio transcript: Making sense of COVID’s psychological currents

The following is an edited transcript of a dialog between Meg Hansen and Matthew Strong on the topic of mass formation theory. The discussion took place on a recent broadcast of WDEV’s Common Sense Radio Show.

Dr. Mattias Desmet (University of Ghent, Belgium) is a clinical psychologist and statistician who proposed the theory of “mass formation” to explain the psychological state of a segment of society since the pandemic began.

In the edited audio excerpt below from the Common Sense Radio show, Meg Hansen and co-host Matthew Strong discuss such topics as “what is mass formation,” “how does it apply to Vermont,” and “what can be done to counter it” —  among other points.

Meg Hansen: I would like to begin with a little about my background. I went to medical school. After I graduated, I could either complete a residency to specialize in a particular field of medicine (as nearly all my classmates did) or choose a different path. For a variety of reasons (most of them related to my personality and what I wanted out of life), I did not pursue a medical specialty. Instead I chose to work in public policy, especially health policy.

Meg Hansen

I find it very interesting to see this moment in American Medicine from the outside, while having been on the inside to some degree as a student. I look at this unprecedented pandemic, at the efforts of our frontline doctors and health care professionals, and then at the ways in which so many aspects have been politicized. Some information has been presented as controversial, while other resources have been promoted as fail-proof. As I have a medical degree, I have been able to take a deep dive into the clinical studies and then compare the data with our public health discourse. I think my background puts me at a particular vantage point to give an opinion that is higher than that of a layman.

Matthew Strong: Yes, absolutely. And you also have an Ivy League degree in… Is it literature?

Meg: Yes, I studied the American Gilded Age. I received a Master’s degree from Dartmouth College in the humanities. I looked specifically at the American Gilded Age and how, at the turn of the twentieth century, our society changed. We surpassed the Great Britain in 1900 to become the number one industrial giant. I studied the tectonic movements, changes, and shifts that consequently occurred in our society. At the same time, I studied postmodernism, which is the dominant school of thought in the humanities and social sciences. What is it? If you think about what’s happening in our culture right now, as in the movements in gender, race and interpersonal relations, they’re all rooted in an intellectual school of thought that came from French and German thinkers in the 1960s. So, to be able to pair this knowledge with medicine is quite interesting. It allows me to see things in a unique way.

Matthew: I think it’s a really fascinating combination of both an analytical mind and also a creative thinking, outside-the-box mindset. It is needed in our modern world in general, but also in a time of emergency and pandemic, as we try to do the most good for the most people. So Meg, now that we’ve had a little bit of your background and a context for the conversation, I wanted to get into the main topic. Can you give us a little background about the situation we are going to talk about?

Theory of Mass Formation

Meg: Matthew, you brought up a perfect segue way into this topic when you emphasized the importance of combining right brain and left brain thinking. When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, a number of epidemiologists, public health researchers, emergency medicine specialists, and respiratory medicine specialists were in the trenches looking at the data, sifting through it all. One of them was a Belgian professor of clinical psychology called Mattias Desmet. He specializes in psychology, psychotherapy, and psychoanalytics, which are slightly more right brain. He is also a statistics expert and so has an analytical mind too. He was keen on understanding the larger picture of the pandemic as well as a more focused look at the data sets. When he paired these two approaches, he noticed a disconnect. For example, when Sweden chose to keep its society open, the statistical model predicted that 80,000 people would die by the end of May 2020. It turns out that 6,000 people died. I’m not minimizing those 6,000 deaths. But for a statistician who is interested in modeling, it was quite the difference between 80,000 and 6,000. Desmet expected that a radical change in the policy prescriptions would follow, but that did not happen.

As the pandemic proceeded, he kept noticing a disconnect between what was actually happening and the policy prescriptions that were promoted. I’ll give one other example. Very early on, everybody in the medical field knew that COVID is fatal to certain groups. Certain groups have a very high risk – those with increased age and co-morbidities. If you are younger and healthier, you are as likely to contract the virus but your chances of dying are practically nonexistent.

Meg: Various epidemiologists consequently proposed risk stratification, which means dividing society into different risk groups, and focusing resources on helping those at high risk by making sure that we can reduce the mortality rates and manage the disease. One group of epidemiologists formalized this proposal into the “Great Barrington Declaration.” They advised focused protection for high-risk groups but they were not heard and instead, dismissed as “fringe.” Recently, Freedom of Information Act emails have showed that both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins (who was then the head of the NIH) did not like the idea of presenting anything other than universal lockdowns as the solution for COVID. We are now seeing more and more evidence of how they discredited and suppresseddifferent legitimate solutions.

Back to the summer of 2020, Desmet and others did not know what was happening behind the scenes, but they saw that something strange was taking place. They were able to identify a disconnect between the data and policy discourse. Desmet has studied and written a lot about various mass movements. He proposed a theory, which builds on two centuries of work, known as “mass formation” to explain what is happening when in January 2022, people are still calling for lockdowns or universal masking or various other policies that are not completely rooted or rooted at all in the scientific data.

Mass Formation is a psychological condition that takes over about 30 percent of society, wherein people buy into a certain narrative that is very loosely connected to what’s actually happening on the ground. Another 40 percent are not as convinced as the 30 percent “true believers,” but they go along to get along. This is not new. It has happened before.

Meg: This phenomenon was recently discussed on Joe Rogan’s show, which is the #1 ranked podcast in the world. It created controversy in the mainstream media, as thousands began discussing it, posting online and tweeting about it. Before we continue, I want to share that the Associated Press came out with a news report that calls this theory unfounded, and claims that it is being used to dismiss COVID measures. Matthew, I think it’s important that we look at the article and explain why it’s not true and why there is value, as you said, in looking at larger psychological movements and trying to explain things by taking historical and psychological perspectives and putting them together.

I’ll quickly mention what the AP article said. It cited various professors who talked about mask formation as either never having been studied in the scientific literature or having been debunked. This is not true. We are talking about a phenomenon that has been called the “madness of crowds” and has been studied since the 1800s in relation to “Tulip Mania” (a craze to buy tulip bulbs that took over the Netherlands in the 17th century) and the witch-hunts that swept through Early Modern Europe and Colonial America. It has also been applied to the totalitarian movements in the 20th century – the communist revolution in the Soviet Union and Nazism. To be clear, no one is saying that we are in a new Nazi Germany. We’re not drawing a perfect parallel. We’re not trying to be inflammatory or provocative. The point here is that we have at least 250 years of scientific literature analyzing mass psychological movements.

Meg: We have to admit that when we face something like this pandemic, it’s not just an infectious disease. There is a psychological element linked with such an unprecedented phenomenon, which has terrorizing and terrifying currents.

So here’s what I would like to ask the audience. When we talk about naturally acquired immunity (say for chicken pox or tuberculosis), we understand how it works. You get infected, contract the virus or bacteria, endure the disease, and recover as your body produces antibodies that are strong and robust. Most of the time, you never get that disease again. Naturally this is not the case with the common cold but with major illnesses, the immunity that you naturally acquire against the germ lasts a lifetime. This is an accepted and well-established fact of modern medicine.

Yet, no one wants to acknowledge the existence of naturally acquired immunity when it comes to COVID 19. Why is that? The cases of re-infection in people who have recovered are practically zero. But we know that if you’re vaccinated, it’s not completely protective. Yes, it seems to protect from developing more serious disease, but it doesn’t prevent you from contracting or transmitting the virus. This is not a slight against the vaccines. This is simply the state of our COVID vaccines right now.

So why is naturally acquired immunity not given any acknowledgement? First of all, it’s wrong to divide the population but if you are going to divide people, then why divide us as unvaccinated and vaccinated? Why aren’t we differentiating between people who are immune versus those that are not immune to SARS-CoV-2? Think about this question. Then, we can look at the psychological context and resistance to these facts.

Matthew: As we get back into our conversation, we’ve been informed that we have a caller – Mark from Essex. What is your comment or a question?

Mark (Caller): I think I just heard your co-host say that once you’ve recovered from COVID, you have immunity and that therefore you shouldn’t worry about a thing after that. And that’s just not true. I’m really kind of disturbed by this notion that you’re trying not to be controversial, but you’re basically sowing misinformation. You can very much get re-infected with COVID. Many people have gotten it more than once. The immunity only lasts around six months. So, I don’t really know what you’re talking about and I’ll just leave it at that. Thank you.

Meg It’s not like re-infection never happens. But exceptions obviously do not negate the rule. Naturally acquired immunity is robust and long lasting. Obviously, we haven’t studied it over 10 years because this just broke out two years ago. But the chances of reinfection are practically nonexistent, and the fact that you will get it again and then get hospitalized and die is zero.

I think here we need to clarify the difference between the fear of contracting the virus and the reality of contracting COVID and developing serious complications. Everyone in the healthcare field sees how the media and political focus has been on COVID case counts. But no one wants to report the morbidity and mortality rates. How many people are actually dying? Sure, I would say that even one death is a lot, but when we are looking at public health at large and creating public policy for all, it cannot be based on the fear of contracting the virus. Further, public health cannot be all COVID all the time, especially two years on.

Indeed, the theory of mass formation explains why the focus has not been on other mental health conditions that have deteriorated since the pandemic began, especially for children and adolescents. Why have public health authorities sidelined treatment for all other conditions? Everything else has faded into the background while the spotlight still shines brightly on COVID in 2022. This singular and irrational focus on the identified object of societal anxiety, according to the theory, consumes about 30 percent of the population.

Meg: Matthew, you had asked me why mass formation is controversial. It’s because this term has also been called a psychosis. I don’t use it and I don’t agree with using that term. Most people, including Desmet who proposed the theory, don’t use it because psychosis is a clinical diagnostic term and we’re not trying to diagnose the population. We’re simply trying to make sense of the disconnect between COVID mortality/ morbidity data and the discourse of our public health experts and the media… by looking at crowd behavior. Desmet puts forward four conditions that are required in a particular population for this psychological phenomenon to take root. I think it is very interesting to look at our society and see if we can make sense of the disconnect using the theory of mass formation or not.

Matthew: To address Mark’s call – there have been a few cases, even recently of relatively high profile people, getting re-infected. I just saw in the news that Glenn Beck, popular radio host, has gotten it again. So, there are few high profile situations where that’s true. And I think as we look through our communities, we’ll see anecdotal evidence of people having the virus again.

Meg I don’t know if you know this about Glenn Beck’s second infection. Was it more severe than his first one?

Matthew: It was substantially less severe from what I have read.

Meg: Okay, so that’s very important to clarify. Then, was his re-infection almost equivalent to getting, let’s say, a cold? Determining worldwide or nationwide public health policy based on the fear of re-infection that is completely manageable and mild… that is again a disconnect. Reinfection rates are practically zero. As I said, an exception doesn’t negate the rule. I’m emphasizing this point because our discussion is not about single cases. It is about dispelling fear and putting things into perspective. The fear of contracting this virus cannot be the only determining factor for enacting policies nationwide or globally. And yet, this is exactly what has been happening. That is what we’re doing.

Four Conditions for Mass Formation

Meg: Fear is very important. I see it as the driving impulse. Carl Jung said that man should be most scared of his own psyche, that is, the unexamined aspects of his own psyche. More than rage, aggression or hatred, the one emotion that can drive us to make dangerous decisions (jeopardizing ourselves and others) is fear.

Desmet discusses four conditions that are needed for mass formation to develop. The first is that a large number of people must feel isolated from one another due to a lack of social bonds. It could be because of the situation at home, in your family, in your community, and the absence of cultural institutions that foster social cohesion. The absence of social bonds breeds a feeling of disconnection from one another. Today, technology – our smart phones and now most interpersonal interactions becoming virtual – has heightened this society-wide isolation. We can all agree that the first condition is pervasive in our society.

The second condition is the absence of sense-making or meaning-making activities such that one’s life generally feels meaningless. The job you do, you do it because you need to get paid and put food on the table, but it isn’t fulfilling in a holistic way. Desmet cites a survey in which over 60 percent of the respondents described their jobs as meaningless.

The third condition for mass formation is the presence of a high level of free-floating anxiety, wherein one can’t point to any factor that is causing them anxiety. They carry this nebulous feeling around. I think it stems from the first two factors of disconnection and not having opportunities or avenues that create meaning in one’s life. The fourth condition is high levels of free-floating discontent – overall anger, frustration, and aggression.

Meg: When these four conditions are pre-existing in society and something like COVID hits, and the people in authority identify an object (SARS-CoV-2 virus) onto which you can focus that free floating anxiety, then the phenomenon of mass formation begins to take hold. This new mission against COVID now brings the public together, giving purpose or meaning and dispelling isolation and alienation. The authorities also identify a solution. The solution, in this case, was social distancing, masking, and vaccination. That is presented as the only answer to the pandemic, and anybody who questions it is chastised and rejected into the out-group. Members of the out-group are on the receiving end of that free-floating discontent or aggression. This is what Desmet has proposed.

At first, to focus solely on SARS-CoV-2 was required and legitimate. But the solution continues to be prevention alone, as the only way to rein in this virus. Universal mandates and prevention are the only two approved policies. The group behind the Great Barrington Declaration disagreed with universal lockdowns and advocated for focused risk stratification. Other groups championed early treatment and not prevention alone. These groups were discredited and denied platforms for discussion. This is how mass formation comes into play in COVID.

To clarify, the standard medical advice for anybody who contracts COVID is to go home, rest, take fluids, and recover on your own. This is very dangerous because it could lead to severe complications, hospitalization and death. Even in those who recover, long COVID is known to develop in the absence of treatment. Long COVID is estimated to affect at least 25 percent. Some reports say up to 40 percent of COVID recovered persons suffer from this chronic, debilitating condition.

If going home and not getting any treatment is very dangerous, then why is it still the standard medical advice? Why aren’t we talking about early aggressive treatment? Why have repurposed generic drugs been criminalized? Why can’t we talk about Vitamin D that boosts immunity? We can’t talk about any form of early treatment because it wasn’t offered as the answer. We are repeatedly told COVID will be contained by prevention alone. This is evidence of a cognitive disconnect.

Countering the Phenomenon

Matthew: Meg, is there something about how it specifically applies to Vermont?

Meg: Yes, I do think so. In Vermont, we have a culture of despair, evidenced in the opioid epidemic that has been worsening over the last two years. We see a lot of mental health deterioration and the lack of economic opportunities, especially outside of the northwest region. Southern Vermont (where I’m from) and the Northeast Kingdom are economic deserts. There is an absence of employment opportunities that offer meaning. There is lack of societal cohesion leading to alienation, despair, and widespread substance abuse. Desmet’s conditions for mass formation were already in place here. Unfortunately, universal lockdowns, school closures, mandates, not recognizing natural immunity… these measures foster distrust and further deepen the alienation and the very conditions that lead to mass formation.

The way to counter this mass psychological phenomenon is to keep speaking the truth. That is the only way to do it. As you said, we need more public conversations like the one we are now having. We all need to take part in conversations that question our assumptions, put us outside our comfort zone, and force us to look at the facts. Looking at the situation from an objective point of view is the way forward, as well as having the courage to speak the truth even if it means getting relegated to the out-group.

Meg Hansen serves on the Board of the Ethan Allen Institute. She previously led a Vermont health policy think tank, and ran for state-level public office in 2020.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR
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4 thoughts on “Radio transcript: Making sense of COVID’s psychological currents

  1. Hello all,

    In an hour-long radio appearance on Common Sense Radio, I discussed the following questions with my co-host Matthew Strong:
    – What is “mass formation” theory?
    – Does it explain the disconnect between the data and discourse of COVID-19 policies?
    – How does it specifically apply to Vermont?
    – What can we do to counter this phenomenon?

    You may listen to an excerpt of our conversation here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_WnJoStTVg

    The audio excerpt’s transcript has been edited and modified to create the article published above.

    Thank you,
    Meg

  2. So refreshing to hear this very thoughtful perspective. Thank you, Beth. I’m glad you went into the policy side of medicine. You offer balance.

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