What is Mass Formation Psychosis? Is it like Mass Hysteria or Mass Delusion?

By John Grohol, Psy.D.
January 4th, 2022

“Mass formation psychosis” is a term that was used on the Joe Rogan podcast by a formerly respected medical researcher, Robert Malone, M.D. He used it to describe what was happening in the United States and elsewhere in terms of people’s overwhelming acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccination.

What is mass formation psychosis? What does the research literature say about this disorder?

What is Mass Formation Psychosis?

Mass formation psychosis is not a scientific term found in the research literature. In fact, putting the term into Scopus or PubMed research databases returns zero results.

It is very surprising to find zero search results for any scientific term in these research databases. That suggests that Malone was using a phrase that isn’t typically used by scientists, or at least it isn’t very well-researched.

“Mass formation” suggests it is a large-scale event. Much like “mob psychology,” a pop psychology term to describe the behavior of crowds in specific, limited-time environments. Mass formation isn’t a term typically used in psychology or sociology today.

Psychosis is when a person’s thoughts or how they perceive the world are abnormal in so much as the person may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not. Psychosis is extremely rare, experienced usually by people with schizophrenia. Most people don’t experience psychosis (or anything like it) in their lifetime.

Putting these two together and we get what is more commonly referred to as mass psychogenic illness (MPI) or, in pop psychology terms, mass hysteria or mass delusion. These are the terms that have some research basis.

What Did Malone Say About Mass Formation Psychosis?

On the podcast, Malone said, “What the heck happened to Germany in the 20s and 30s? Very intelligent, highly educated population, and they went barking mad. And how did that happen?

“The answer is mass formation psychosis.”

“When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other and has free-floating anxiety in a sense that things don’t make sense, we can’t understand it, and then their attention gets focused by a leader or series of events on one small point just like hypnosis, they literally become hypnotized and can be led anywhere.”

If this doesn’t sound particularly scientific or based in psychological science, you’d be right. Malone isn’t a psychologist and doesn’t have any background or experience in psychology, human behavior, or psychiatric research.

Instead, his description sounds like some sort of pop psychology mumbo-jumbo from someone who took Psychology 101 in college. Anyone who suggests there’s “free-floating anxiety” that’s “just like hypnosis” has a very limited understanding of what these things mean.

People just can’t be hypnotized without their knowledge or consent — that’s not at all how hypnosis works. And while anxiety is indeed a significant issue for many people, it doesn’t “float” from person to person or otherwise become infectious.

The Problem with Malone’s Theories

Malone exhibits all the traits of an individual with only a rudimentary understanding of psychology and psychological theory. He was trained as a medical doctor and spent much of his career as a medical researcher, as far as I can tell. None of his work touched upon psychology or psychological theory.

Suddenly, however, Malone feels qualified to express his expertise about “mass formation psychosis.” He knows so little about the field, he basically invented a term (or repeated something he heard once somewhere), instead of using the already well-known and accepted terms, mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness.

Does Mass Hysteria Have Research Backing?

So once we put aside Malone’s incorrect usage of terminology, is there anything to back the idea that the entire world is in a period of mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness when it comes to taking the COVID-19 vaccines? Have we all been misled by tens of thousands of world leaders, health experts, and researchers who’ve been working on this issue tirelessly for the past two years?

Mass psychogenic illness (MPI) — also known as mass hysteria or mass delusion — has a very mixed record in the psychological research. Most studies that have been conducted are retrospective in nature. That means the researchers offer “mass psychogenic illness” as a possible explanation for symptoms shared by a group of people only after the fact.

Those groups of people examined are usually confined to a specific environment and limited period of time. For instance, one study suggested it as a possible explanation for the symptoms experienced by American embassy workers in Cuba who came down with physical ailments and auditory problems (Bartholomew & Perez, 2018).

This is how MPI is described by researchers:

There are two main types of MPI. The most common in Western countries (anxiety hysteria) is triggered by extreme, sudden stress within a close-knit group. It is usually triggered by a foul or unfamiliar odour that is perceived to be harmful. Symptoms are transient, benign and typically include dizziness, headache, fainting and over-breathing. Most victims recover within 24 hours and there is an absence of pre-existing tension within the group. A second type (motor hysteria) arises from long-term anxiety and features motor agitation. Common symptoms include twitching, shaking, trouble walking, uncontrollable laughing and weeping, communication difficulties and trance states. Symptoms appear slowly over weeks or months under exposure to longstanding stress, and typically take weeks or months to subside, after the stress has been reduced or eliminated (Bartholomew et al., 2012).

Do either of these definitions seem to fit into what Malone is suggesting?

If MPI exists at all, it has mixed research backing and very little research altogether compared to more mainstream psychological disorders. There were only 84 references to this term in PubMed. Compare that to 45,893 references for “major depressive disorder.” And if MPI does exist, it is the closest term to “mass formation psychosis,” yet sounds nothing like what Malone is talking about.

Does Malone’s Argument Make Any Sense?

On the face of it, of course, the argument lacks face validity. It would suggest that tens of thousands of independent professionals came together somehow with the same goal — to get everyone to take a vaccine. For what purpose, if not to help prevent the spread of serious illness and hospitalization associated with COVID-19?

In Malone’s mind, it’s just for “control.” Control how and for what end, again, is largely left unsaid. The vaccine doesn’t control anyone. Governments have indeed instituted lockdowns during vaccine surges. But they’ve just as quickly removed those lockdowns when the coronavirus decreases in the population. The data don’t suggest that anything much has changed in the past two years, outside of occasional mandates to wear a mask indoors or reduce large social gatherings (especially inside).

“But they’re mandating we get the vaccine!” If the vaccine were something nefarious, that might be of concern. But the vaccine is nothing special. Nearly 10 billion doses have been administered in the past year and no widespread, large-scale, or long-term side effects having been noted. Yes, there are a tiny minority of people who have side effects, some of which are indeed concerning — but nothing so large as to be concerned about on a population-wide scale.

We’ve had two centuries’ worth of data and experience supporting how vaccines work. Two centuries.

We know that if a vaccine has negative side effects or other issues of concern, they show up within a few weeks of administration. This is not surprising, because unlike a medication, a vaccine is only active within a person’s body for a short period of time. It’s basic job is to pass along instructions to your body’s immune system so that it knows what to look for and how to mount a future defense against infection.

Everything about Malone’s argument doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. Unless, of course, you believe in conspiracy theories.

The Nature of Conspiracy Theories

The very nature of conspiracy theories is that they are nearly impossible to disprove. And if you offer evidence that does disprove them, the person who believes the theory will just incorporate that new evidence into the ever-expanding and ridiculous theory.

It is a common anti-vax trope to engage in conspiracy theories that suggest it is some sort of conspiracy among thousands of independent researchers to come together to invent a vaccine that will somehow do some unspecified thing to humans who take it. At the very least, they suggest, it will lead to long-term, as-yet unreported health problems, most commonly infertility. They believe it’s all an effort to bring citizens “under control” by their government.

None of this makes any sense. Malone is just playing into these theories and giving them some additional ammunition in the form of a seemingly scientific term. It makes it all sound a little more possible with the veneer of scientific data — even though it continues to have none.

 

 

19 Responses to What is Mass Formation Psychosis? Is it like Mass Hysteria or Mass Delusion?

  • January 10th, 2022 at 12:00 pm Bill posted:

    Strong argument to suggest that Malone is a “kook” who has falling to far from the “tree of knowledge” and landed in a bed of pop theories that is nonsensical and foolish. I am no conspiracy theorist (CT), however, I think what Malone is suggesting is that it’s not hard for evil doers’ to use Covid-19 outbreak to wreak havoc of the masses do to their fear of the virus to push the goals of government to get their people to buy into ideals. Malone’s theory is not so far fetched, if that’s what he is proposing.

  • January 10th, 2022 at 12:42 pm Rob posted:

    Hi John,

    “That suggests that Malone was using a phrase that isn’t typically used by scientists, or at least it isn’t very well-researched.”

    Indeed, you did not ‘very well-researched’ yourself..

    Please have a look a the Belgian Professor Mattias Desmet on YouTube, explaining, in October last year, what ‘Mass Formation Psychosis’ is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqPJiM5Ir3A

    So it looks Robert Malone not being a ‘scientists’ in this field, did quite an accurate job explaining it…

    • January 11th, 2022 at 10:29 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

      A YouTube video is not “research.” It’s a little unbelievable that you think that a video or talk is the same as a peer-reviewed, scientific study. C’mon man.

      • January 12th, 2022 at 10:05 am William posted:

        Carl Jung wrote extensively about the term Mass Psychosis, and it is a very well articulated concept in psychology and science. Also, you cannot discredit a form of research based on whether it is on Youtube or not, because the content of any particular video may have its own merits. For instance, if I made a video about “E=MCsquared”, the fact it is in a youtube video doesn’t make it void. This article you have written is filled with distortions and inaccuracies. For example, you have completely ommitted the fact that Malone actually invented this vaccine technology, he has been the subject of a public smear campaign and had his social media accounts deleted for discussing alternative opinions than the official version. This is a case of pure propaganda, expertly written, and shamelessly so, although, it is still obvious to anyone who knows anything about anything. You might be able to twist words and fool idiots, but you can’t hide the truth completely.

      • January 13th, 2022 at 6:20 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

        It may be “out there” in the world as a term coined by various people (under various names), but the point stands — there’s no scientific research data that supports the hypothesis.

      • January 12th, 2022 at 1:29 pm Alex posted:

        Fair enough but Mattias Desmet appears to be a credible mental health expert working for a university who has quite a few studies and papers published under his name. While “mass formation psychosis” appears to be a turn of phrase that isn’t commonly used the concept behind it isn’t new or unheard of.

        https://www.ugent.be/psync/en/who/desmet_mattias

        Mass hysteria fueled by misinformation and the siloing of communication is a good fit for both sides of the Covid discussion. In individuals with conservative ideologies it manifests as being less concerned than they should be about the pandemic. In liberals it manifests as terror over a disease that has a 0.001% mortality rate for healthy children and adults.

      • January 13th, 2022 at 6:26 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

        He may be a credible researcher in the field, but the word “psychosis” doesn’t appear at all in his academic bibliography. A form of “hysteria” is listed 4 times, but only in reference to case studies and individuals — no groups.

        The point is there is no scientific research or data that supports this hypothesis. There’s a lot of explanation-after-the-fact (especially in regards to pointing to historical events), but that’s not science. That’s just people who desperately want a rational explanation for bizarre events.

  • January 10th, 2022 at 4:20 pm Dimsar Fashist posted:

    Dr. Malone is spot-on. Tens of millions have become hypnotized and have become like mindless sheep being led to the slaughter. Covidiots. I call them Covidiots.

  • January 11th, 2022 at 7:51 am Paul Magadanz posted:

    In the article, you fail to mention Dr. Mattias Desmet and his publications on the subject which Dr. Mallone attributed in his interview with Rogan. This demonstrates either shallow research effort on your part and/or just an intention to smear Mallone personally rather than really investigate the theory. Actually this was made clear in your first paragraph with the phrase “…formerly respected…” Dr. Mallone and his huge body of work remains highly respected in spite of recent cancel culture hit pieces like yours.

  • January 11th, 2022 at 6:00 pm Dan posted:

    t This article is totally one sided.. First and foremost Mass Formation Psychosis was coined by The Belgium Psychiatrist Matias Desmet. Malone has acknowledged that he didnt coin the term but belongs to Dr.

    The ideas that there is very little research in mass hysteria is not true. Crowds so on occasion are seized by a lost of touch with reality. The Tulip Craze, The Nazi period, The Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Scare, and so on.

    3Look at The VAERS database and you will see tens of thousands of adverse reactions. To say these vaccines are safe is not true. The cases of adverse reactions have been underreported by a factor of 20- 100x. So you do the numbers

    This article is not neutral but clearly supports one side. 30% of this country doesn’t buy it and will not buckle to this sophistry

  • January 11th, 2022 at 6:18 pm dan abella posted:

    Malone is not the one who coined Mass Formation Psychosis. The credit belongs to TOBIAS DESMET, from the faculty Ghent Univesity. Belgium. In a later interview, Malone clarified this issue.
    Marc Mc Donald, MD has written a book called Mass Delusional Psychosis and arrives at the same conclusion as Dr.Desmet. We are witnessing an exaggerated response to the mandates and lockdowns characteristic of mass hysteria.
    Lastly you can find some of his published writings on https://biblio.ugent.be/person/801001743835 Here you will find him in The European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counseling
    P

  • January 11th, 2022 at 9:18 pm Doug Mann posted:

    With all due respect John, though the term “mass formation psychosis” may not have much meaning in empirical literature, the idea of the “crowd” or mob engaging in irrational behaviour under the influence of either authority figures, the media, or viral rumours has a LONG history in psychology, sociology and political science. Here’s a reading list:

    Gustave le Bon, LA FOULE (THE CROWD)
    Charles Mackay, EXTRAORDINARY DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS
    Sigmund Freud, GROUP PSYCHOLOGY AND THE ANALYSIS OF EGO
    Stanley Cohen, FOLK DEVILS AND MORAL PANICS (a key book if you want to understand the Covid mania and those it persecutes)
    Douglas Murray, THE MADNESS OF CROWDS
    Various histories of the French Revolution – Mathiez, Schama, Levebvre, Hobsbawm, etc.
    Eric Fromm, ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM

    By the way, I have graduate degrees in Philosophy and Political Science, and have lectured on and published on social theory, so I’m not a neophyte. The idea that the “mob” will jump on board with irrational hypotheses and ignore well established facts is not new. Fromm’s title pretty well sums up our modern political and cultural situation.

    • January 13th, 2022 at 6:19 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

      Thanks for the reading list, however, as you know, books aren’t the same as peer-reviewed, scientific research, no?

      • January 13th, 2022 at 3:46 pm Thomas Burns posted:

        John,
        Truth is truth, whether it is peer reviewed or not. Books such as those listed by Doug are of enormous value to humanity.

        Many (if not the majority) of published peer reviewed studies have turned out to be incorrect or misleading. See for example
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis
        I trust you were already familiar with this fact? If you weren’t, why not? If you were, why the focus on “peer-reviewed studies”?

        Instead of outsourcing critical thinking to “peer reviewed, scientific research”, I would advise to first use logic and common sense.

        Here a very concise 2-minute video from Allan Savory on peer-review:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGDbpg1nG8Y

      • January 14th, 2022 at 9:00 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

        Really? If you doubt the validity of science and peer-review, there’s really not much more to say. “Logic and common sense” didn’t serve humanity as well as you might think before science. Modern society is largely thankful based upon scientific breakthroughs in research (which were shared and disseminated through scientific journals). We have the eradication of so many diseases, like polio, thanks to science (and peer-review).

        So while truth may be truth, to find that truth and not be misled by a logical fallacy (which humans are very good at falling into), researchers look to the data. What do the data say?

        And at least in terms of “mass formation psychosis,” there’s no data today to back this hypothesis.

      • January 15th, 2022 at 4:34 pm trish W posted:

        seriously? 1) Malone quoted Dr. Matias Desmet; 2) Matias Desmet is a Clinical Psychologist teaching on mass formation psychosis for several years [and also a statistician] 3) Peer Reviewed Studies began in the 1970s I believe, well after Freud and Gustave la Bon so that’s an interesting reason to discount their knowledge. What studies have you done on mass psychosis? and 3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7913136/

        good day.

      • January 17th, 2022 at 10:15 am John Grohol, Psy.D. posted:

        Coming up with explanations after the fact to explain some observation of possibly connected events — but without the actual evidence of their connection — is a logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_hoc_ergo_propter_hoc ). It is one commonly employed by folks who don’t have any actual data, but feel the need to “explain” some kind of pattern they believe exists.

        The research you cite doesn’t contain any scientific, experimental data. It is a theory-based paper that offers post-hoc suggestions about some phenomenon they believe is happening. The researchers in that paper are not epidemiologists, and in fact, two of them don’t even work in the social sciences. Know who you’re quoting before you just throw out a citation.

  • January 24th, 2022 at 3:42 am Brendan Merriman posted:

    I meant to post this as a new comment instead of a reply. I found your article informative and these comments reveal an impressive amount of determination to actually engage in discourse with individuals who hold opposing beliefs. You provided citations or appropriate reference material as well so anyone who wanted to could research the subject independently. Thank you for your work.

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