A professor clinical psychology’s view on the behaviour of the masses in times of corona.

First time posting. I always like reading the ‘Discussion’ posts because reading about other peoples struggles and their viewpoints gives me comfort in these dire times.

Earlier this year I read an article by a professor clinical psychology (Mattias Desmet) who shares his view on why people accept lockdown measures even though they have so much impact on their prosperity and wellbeing. I feel like it really helped me understand why things are happening the way they are happening. In the article he talks about different points which I would like to share with and maybe discuss with you. The article: https://www.knack.be/nieuws/wetenschap/in-de-coronacrisis-is-de-publieke-opinie-in-de-greep-van-absurde-oordelen/article-opinion-1634377.html

Conformity In the 1950’s Solomon Asch conducted experiments where he proved that peer pressure is a very powerful force. In one of his experiments he showed groups of 8 people a picture of a line and then a picture of 3 other lines (coded a,b,c) with differing lengths. One of these lines was as long as the one on the first picture. The other lines were obviously way shorter or longer than the line in the first picture. The objective for each participant was to call out loud which of the lines was as long as the one in the first picture.

In reality 7 of the 8 people were in on the experiment. They would sometimes call out the wrong answer, but when they did it, they would all say the same answer. The one real test subject often followed the group. Only 25% of the real test subjects would actually give the right answer.

After the experiment some subjects said they did know the right answer but they didn’t feel comfortable going against the group. Even more interesting: some people admitted that because of peer pressure, they doubted their own judgement and actually believed the (absurd) opinion of the others to be true.

It doesn’t matter how wrong the message is, if you repeat it enough in the media, people will believe it. I have heard a lot when trying to discus these things with people: ”It can’t be that EVERYONE is wrong right??” or ”They wouldn’t say these things if they weren’t true”. The question is, how can a message (covid is deadly and listen to us, the experts), even though it is clearly wrong (or half truth) be so convincing.

Lack of meaning in peoples lives, fear and discomfort

On why this ”crisis” gains so much traction: there already was a sense of discomfort in peoples lives (everybody is depressed and burnouts are not uncommon) and a lack of meaning (of life).

Mass formation often arises in a social climate saturated with unease, fear and lack of meaning (see eg the 300 million doses of antidepressants per year in Belgium and the burnout epidemic). In such an atmosphere, the population is extremely sensitive to stories that identify 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 that was previously indeterminate in society is now becoming very concrete and therefore mentally more manageable.

Secondly, in the common struggle with ‘the enemy’, the disintegrating society regains minimal cohesion, energy and meaning; the fight against corona becomes a mission laden with pathos and group heroism.

To me this explains why people get so ridiculously defensive and even angry when you challenge anything what the masses believe (that what is being repeated in the mainstream media). By nuancing the risk of covid, you take away that which makes their already existing fear and discomfort, to have a clear cause: covid.


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 and the field of consciousness narrows.

In the corona crisis, you can see that in this, for example: victims who fall due to the measures (e.g. deaths due to emotional and physical neglect in residential care centers , non-corona patients whose treatment has been postponed, victims of aggression indoors, …) get in any case in comparison with corona victims, little attention and empathy (of these victims no daily statistics, case reports, testimonials from family members, etc.) They fall outside the circle of light.

It looks like most of the population is indeed hynotized by the fear of covid, and therefore completely ignoring all the other effects of lockdown. It’s easy to confuse people’s behaviour with selfishness, but this is not completely the case. There are surgeons who perform surgery on people who can’t take the narcotics, by first putting them under hypnosis. The patients don’t feel a thing. I believe the same type of psychological effects are happening now, but en masse.

Meaningful life in the western world

At the end of the article the author goes back to lack of meaning viewpoint.

The mass psychological dynamics that arise around the real core of the corona epidemic exhibit all the characteristics of a psychological symptom and must be analyzed as such. Just like an individual symptom, it has a signaling function . It refers to an underlying social problem, which we described above as a lack of meaning and associated epidemic anxiety and depression.

This can be felt in the workplace, among other things. Now that the lockdown and the accompanying leave (which didn’t really feel like a 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 to fulfill without knowing who actually benefits.

As someone recently told me, you would almost long for another lockdown. For quite a few people this seems like the only way to escape the grueling rat race and at least experience some meaning and connection with the other in the fight against the virus. For example, in the current mass formation we find another characteristic of psychological symptoms: they are attempts to solve the underlying problem … that are harmful in the long term.

This is the task we face: to find meaning and connection in life without the need for a war with a virus. Where in our Western worldview is there an opening that offers the prospect of a meaningful human existence?

To me, learning about these psychological explanations of the masses’ behaviour really calmed me down. I was (am) so confused why everyone thinks the way they do. The viewpoints of peer-pressure, mass formation = hypnosis, and the lack of meaning in people’s lives really feel like a more satisfactory explanation to me than thinking this is all a plan by the elites (which I find unlikely, even though the rich are getting richer from this crisis).

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