OPINION: Ever wondered why we take comfort in following the crowd?

Norwich City fans at Carrow Road. Amanda Goss explains why we feel such safety in numbers

Norwich City fans at Carrow Road. Amanda Goss explains why we feel such safety in numbers - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Psychotherapist Amanda Goss explains why safety in numbers suits the human condition

As a society we have been suffering psychologically for some time. 

In 2018, 70.9 million doses of anti-depressants were distributed, almost double the amount from ten tears earlier.

The Government appointed a loneliness minister to deal with the loneliness epidemic; and right now we are suffering a divide in our society directly as a result of how the pandemic has been dealt with.  We are more vulnerable psychologically than ever as anxiety and mental health issues rapidly rise.

In 1972, social psychologist Irving L Janis’s study ‘group consensus’ found a psychological phenomenon which happens when a group of people try to agree on a topic.  

We go along with others opinions even if they are not ours to save us feeling foolish/stupid/not as knowledgeable and/or follow a charismatic leader.

There have been many studies that prove that we discriminate. Since society means we group ourselves (by race, gender or the football team we support), rather than it being the tendency of a dangerous few, discrimination might actually be the norm.

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On top of the already rising rates of anxiety, loneliness and depression we then have a pandemic and restrictions are placed upon us. Psychologist and former MIT professor Edgar Schein originated the term Coercive Persuasion, which works by causing stress and anxiety by:

  • removing support; social environment; contact of friends/family;
  • controlling communication; removing separate or alternative opinions;
  • undermining the victim’s consciousness, awareness of reality or view of the World and forcing them to adopt a new ‘reality’, or they are a ‘bad’ person;
  • undermining self-confidence and judgement but subjecting the victim to confusing, conflicting, ever changing actions;

All the conditions are present to cause Mass Formation or Mass Psychosis:

So what is Mass Formation/Psychosis?

Dr Desmot, MA, Statistics and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Ghent University says:

This occurs when four conditions are met:

  • 1. Society experiencing a lack of social bond.  (the rise in loneliness, anxiety, depression/isolation over the past decade).
  • 2. A rise in the number of people feeling that they are living a meaningless life.  
  • 3. High levels of free-floating anxiety.  (You are anxious... you just don't know why).  
  • 4. Which leads to free-floating aggression and frustration, you feel it but you don't know why and don't know what to do with it.  So you need a target.

If, under the above conditions, a narrative is produced through mass media indicating an object of anxiety and providing a strategy to deal with this anxiety, something specific happens:

All the free-floating anxiety connects, suddenly we have a reason for our anxiety and now we have a strategy to deal with it. 

  • Stage 1: People follow the narrative and participate in the strategy given to deal with the object of their anxiety (Pandemic).  
  • Stage 2: Many use the same strategy (masks/vaccinations) and a new social bond emerges.  We once again feel solidarity and connection (which we subconsciously and consciously strive for as a natural part of being a social creature).
    (Our mainstream narrative has been about solidarity: Social distancing/vaccine/masks and if you don't comply it is said you lack citizenship, for example.)
    We need  the new social bond which has been so lacking which is the real reason that we buy into a story, even if the story is utterly absurd, not because we necessarily believe the narrative.
  • Stage 3: All aggression/frustration is directed at an object: People who do not want to or could not participate in the Mass Formation.
    This has happened before with the French Revolution, the emergence of Stalinism and the rise of the Nazis in Germany

All of the above events shared the same characteristics and a new solidarity emerged.

1. Start from a negative state;
2. Move systematically to a positive state to connection; life makes sense; there is a heroic struggle; people are united against whatever the problem was.
3. Mental intoxication (repetition of the same message).

This is why we continue to believe in a narrative even if it is utterly absurd.  

People in ‘Mass Formation’ won't see the absurdity in it - for example there is no evidence to support the need for masking children who have a healthy immune system, in fact.

When we are in Mass Formation our field of vision narrows which is the same thing that happens under hypnosis; no awareness of collateral damage/loss of freedom/health although knowledge that it exists but it has no impact: We don’t want to look or see, we are kind of aware of a discomfort around some things but we ignore it and stick doggedly to the narrative given.

This has no relation to intelligence levels. In a Mass Formation people are insensitive to rational explanation, convinced it is their duty (for the greater good) and very sensitive to:

  • strong images;
  • repetition of the same message;
  • Numbers and graphs have a big impact.

Dr Mattios Desmot believes that this is an ideological problem not a conspiracy.  

With regards to now, he says that it is vital that we establish open, respectful communication and that the real problem is the psychological misery before this pandemic and that, ultimately, this is what we will need to address in the future.

Anxiety and suicide levels are reaching new highs.  Psychotherapists are seeing the effects of the last two years.  I believe we need to raise awareness of how we naturally operate so that we can better understand and look after ourselves during these difficult times and beyond.

Amanda Goss is managing director of Harley St Psychotherapy Ltd, a team of counsellors who offer therapy online and face to face in Kings Lynn and Hunstanton