“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.