CHAPTER ELEVEN Mental Contagion and Mass Delusion
During disturbed times such as these, the thoughts of everyone follow the diplomatic play going on at the various political conferences. It would be worth while to investigate whether it is possible for leaders of nations to arrive at a common understanding as a result of mutual exchange of words, ideas, and the negotiating of treaties. Yet, the various cultures in the world and the different ideologies not only speak different languages, but even their ways of thinking are different. Unobtrusively, our personal past and our cultural environment creep into our thinking habits. Our feelings and thoughts are conditioned and coerced by various social influences.
It is already possible to bring to the surface some of the illusions and prejudices people have about one another. We may say that the special environments in which people develop and the habits they build up foster subtle illusions and delusions in persons, of which they are, for the most part, unaware. Through research in the field, anthropology and psychology have been able to compare different ideologies in people by observing the growth of the wholesome and the unwholesome-in the child, in groups, in tribes, and, lastly, in nations. The findings call to our attention the difficult art of argument in situations where there is scarcely any common ground of communication and understanding.
In a study on mental coercion we have to trace some of these mass psychological influences which condition our attitude in life.
The Affirmation of My Own Errors
The lie I tell ten times gradually becomes a half truth to me, And as I continue to tell my half-truth to others, it becomes my cherished delusion.
We rediscover this phenomenon every day in that huge laboratory of human relations we call psychological counseling and psychotherapy. Let us look at just one simple example, the case of a perfectly healthy child who decides one day that she doesn't want to go to school because schoolwork seems so very difficult. So she tells her mother that she has a headache, and mother agrees to let her stay at home. Thus the girl avoids the schoolwork she dreads and gets the additional gratification of her mother's solicitous and tender nursing.
The next time our little girl wants to stay home it is easier to pretend she has a headache-and the third time it is easier still. Gradually the girl herself begins to believe in her recurrent illness. Her conscience bothered her the first time she lied, but by now her initial lie has become an ingenuous truth to her. By the time our heroine becomes a grown woman she will have to consult with a doctor about her constantly recurring headaches. Doctor and patient will have to spend many hours untangling the web of halflies, innuendos, and self-pitying complaints until the patient rediscovers that her headaches all began on that one day she didn't want to go to school.
Delusional headaches afflict the world itself. Political demagoguery is, to some extent, a problem in our country. The particular form this demagoguery takes is only a passing phase, and when our current dragons and inner phantoms have been laid to rest, the eternal demagogue may arise anew. He will accuse others of conspiracy in order to prove his own importance. He will try to intimidate those who are neither so iron-fisted nor so hotheaded as he, and temporarily he will drag some people into the web of his delusions. Perhaps he will wear a mantle of martyrdom to arouse the tears of the weak-hearted. With his emotionalism and suspicion, he will shatter the trust of citizens in one another. His delusions of grandeur will infect those insecure souls who hope that some of his dictatorial glamour will rub off on them.
Unfortunately the problem of delusion has been studied almost exclusively in terms of its pathological manifestations. The psychiatrist who has encountered delusions of grandeur in his patients has in the past lacked the philosophical and sociological background necessary to enable him to form comparisons between his patients' delusional systems and mass delusion in the world. In dealing with patients suffering from megalomania or persecution mania, he has tended to rely too much on hypotheses which explain pathological delusions as the product of anatomical changes in the individual brain; he has not given enough attention to the question of whether or not these phenomena are in any way related to an abnormal way of thinking in a physically normal person.
Since the growth of anthropology and the social sciences in the last decades, new light has been thrown on the subject of mass feelings and mass delusion. Obviously these are not phenomena which a pathologist can examine under a microscope. They demand a knowledge of history and social psychology and of all the studies which concern interhuman relations and man's collective thinking.
To arrive at a clinical stage of study of this subject, it is necessary to divest oneself of various fixed philosophical ideas which have dominated scientific thought since Aristotle. There is, for example, the doctrine of the identity of all thinking processes and the possible universality of human understanding. This is essentially founded on the belief that all human beings think in the same way. But against this hypothesis is the observable truth that philosophers themselves have the utmost difficulty in reaching mutual understanding. This may be largely due to the fact that different men have different methods and standards of thinking. For centuries, science has adopted the Aristotelian dictum that most thought is carried on according to the established rules of logic, which apply in the same way as the laws of nature. It was the philosopher Francis Bacon who first pointed out, in his theory of idols, that although the laws of logic and clear thinking certainly exist, men may or may not make use of them; depending on the emotional circumstances, "thoughts are often the theatrical curtains to conceal personal passions and reactions." In this statement the philosopher who lived during Shakespeare's time might almost be attacking the seeming logic of modern demagoguery. Since the Renaissance, therefore, it has been acknowledged that human feelings and personal inclinations mold and direct thought, and this point of view rather early found its most moving expression in the works of Spinoza and Pascal. When we come into contact with the phenomena of collective passion and mass delusion, it is impossible to keep modern psychology out of the picture whether we look at it philosophically or politically. For, when examining this problem, we are immediately confronted with the question, Do these disquieting phenomena in group life, which lead to so much mutual misunderstanding, arise from the fact that the group is in a particular, immature, and adolescent phase of psychological and political development?
It will be illuminating and may help us answer the question if we study briefly the history of the growth of consciousness and awareness in the individual mind as it passes through successive stages from infancy to maturity, since we can, in fact, find a parallel between such stages of growth in the individual and the human group.
Stages of Thinking and Delusion*
The psyche is constantly confronted with and communicating with the outside world, and at every phase of an individual's development that world and its events are experienced differently.
Although different scientists have drawn different conclusions about the various phases and their implications, the very recognition of change and growth of personal outlook is one of the most important scientific findings in psychology and is agreed on by all psychologists. Let me briefly explain here the developmental approach to human psychology. It is not the only one, but it will serve to illustrate the tremendous impact of immature and delusional thinking on our final opinions.
Developmental psychology-as studied in children and primi* Here I follow in part the classification of S. Ferenczi and that of my own book on delusion.
tives-posits at the origin of thinking, in both the individual and the race, a hallucinatory stage of the mind, in which there is no experience of difference between the inside and the outside world; the mental separation and distantiation between the self and the world has not yet taken place. The psyche is felt to be omnipotent -all that is experienced inside the self is attributed to the universe as well and is imagined to be part of that universe.
According to developmental psychology, the infant experiences the world in this way, and in certain types of insanity the adult will revert to this hallucinatory stage. Yet, even mature man does not succeed completely in separating internal fantasy from outside reality, and often he thinks that his private and subjective moods are caused by some external actuality. In the next stage, that of animistic thinking, there is still a partial sense of oneness between the ego and the world. The individual's inner experience, his fears, his feelings, are projected onto seeming causative agents in the outside world. The outside world is a continual demonic threat to him. The child who bumps against the table projects onto that table a hostile living power, and hits back. The primitive tribesman, hunted by beasts of prey, attributes to the animal he feared a divine power, that of a hostile god. The entire outside world may in fact be peopled with the fears of men. In times of panic and fear, we all may populate our neighborhood with nonexistent traitors or fifth columnists. Our animistic thinking is continually busy accusing others of what actually occurs inside our own minds. Nowadays there are no devils and ghosts in trees and in wild animals; they have made their homes in the various scapegoats created by dictators and demagogues.
The third stage is that of magical thinking in which there is still a sense of intimate connection between man and his outside world. However, man places himself more in opposition to the world than in union with it. He wants to negotiate with the mysterious powers around him. Magic is in fact the simplest strategy of man. He has discovered that he can manipulate the world with signs and gestures or sometimes with real actions or changes. He erects totem poles and sacrificial blocks; he makes talismans and strange medicines. He uses words as powerful signs to change the world. He develops a ritual to satisfy his need for coming to terms with the outside world.
Which of us has not felt a sudden desire to count cobblestones or is not the jealous possessor of an amulet or some other secret token whose power would be lost if its existence were known to others?
Immature as they are, these tokens serve to build up happiness and a good life. We all still live in the world of magic and are caught in the delusion of happy manipulation of nature. The modern tribe drives around in mechanized cars and becomes a megalomaniac sorcerer of the wheel. Millions of victims are brought to the altar of the god Speed because of our hidden delusion that frenzied rapidity prolongs life. The engine and the gadget have replaced the more mysterious amulet of earlier days. Knowledge is still in the service of power instead of in the service of understanding.
In the last phase of mental development, man makes a complete separation between himself and the outside world. He not only lives with things and tries to manipulate them, but he also lives in opposition to them. In this phase of mature reality confrontation, man becomes an observer of his own life. He recognizes the abyss of his own being. He sees his body and mind as separate from the world. With hands, ears, eyes, and his controlling mind, he confronts reality. He steps back from the world and observes it. He is, in fact, the only animal that walks erect, straightforwardly facing the world. He is the only animal that uses his hands and his senses as verifying instruments. Gradually his own mind-body becomes an instrument whose drives he may accept or reject. Only man is able to see his drives and instincts as either dangerous or useful. Man not only knows an externally imposed fear, but he knows an inner fear, fear of losing the inner controls he has acquired at so high a price. With arms and hands man reaches outnot only toward the outside which he once hoped to conquer with magic gestures as a baby does, but also he knowingly reaches out toward an inside world. Mature man lives between an inner and an outer world.
There is something tragic about this laborious process of becoming conscious of a separate inner and outer reality. In becoming mature, man awakens from a sweet primitive dream in which he was part of an individual whole, part of a nirvanic world of equanimity. The sense of lost unity with the universe lingers on, and in moments of mass tension, or in times of crisis, he reaches toward that ancient experience of impersonal, irresponsible bliss.
Utter passivity or self-destruction, artificial ecstasy obtained by means of drugs, the suicidal wish for eternal sleep-all are devices by which man hopes to fulfill that eternal yearning. At what stage in connection with these developments of human experience may we speak of delusion? When the member of a primitive tribe placates the mysterious and hostile world by prayer to his totem animal, we do not call this delusion; but if a man who has attained to a more advanced stage of thinking relapses into such a primitive habit of thought, then it is possible to call this falling back (retrogression) a delusion.
The Loss of Verifiable Reality
Delusion we may thus tentatively define as the loss of an independent, verifiable reality, with a consequent relapse into a more primitive stage of awareness. Just as the young woman we spoke about earlier began to believe in and suffer from her headaches, so the man who sells his private fantasy first as a rumor and then as a factual truth gradually loses his awareness that his initial statements were in fact deceits, and his delusion becomes a kind of permanent petrification of his original primitive wishful thinking.
There are several factors which promote deluded thinking. Retrogression and primitivization may occur as a result of physical disease, particularly diseases of the brain, and it is with this type of delusions that psychiatrists deal. Many brain diseases put out of operation the brain cortex, the organ which developed last in the evolutionary process and which makes us aware and controls our thinking. When this disturbance of function happens, genetically older types of brain functioning have to take over.
Most of the causes of delusions are not purely organic, however. The same effect of regression may be produced by hypnosis and mass hypnosis, which, by dislocating the higher forms of alert consciousness, reduce the subject to the primitive stage of collective participation and of oneness experience. If awareness and reality confrontation become rigid and automatic, if man does not look for alert and repeated verifications of what he finds in the world, he may develop delusions-ideas not adapted to the reality situation. Apparently the human being requires constant confrontation and verification with various aspects of reality if he is to remain alive and alert. When experience is petrified into dogma, the dogma itself stands in the way of new verification and of new truth. The delusion of a nation that calls itself the "chosen" country makes it harder for that nation to collaborate with other nations.
How deeply involved the process of thought control is with the general formation of ideas in our time can be shown by the following experience. After the First World War, I made the acquaintance of a German philosopher dedicated to the idealistic philosophy of his country. Germany went through a creative phase, new ideas arose of fraternity and world peace. Germany, the defeated country, would show its spiritual power. During our vacations we walked together through the sunny mountains of Ticino and devoted our philosophical conversation to the eternal yearnings of mankind for harmony and friendship. We became friends and wrote to each other about our mutual work, till the shadow of totalitarianism came over his country. At first he was skeptical and even critical about Nazism. Our correspondence diminished, and when he gradually became gleichgeschaltet and a member of the party, the final mental cleavage followed. I never heard about him any more.
So many philosophers surrender their theoretical thinking under the impact of powerful mass emotions. The reason lies not only in anxiety and submissiveness. It is a much deeper emotional process. People want to speak the language of their country and fatherland. In order to breathe, they have to identify with the ideological cliches of their surroundings. Spiritually they cannot stand alone. Stefan Zweig wrote during the First World War that this inner process of speaking along with the chauvinistic voices around him was experienced by him as a deep inner conflict. "Ich hatte den Willen nicht mehr gerecht zu sein (I did not have the will any more to be just to the others):"
It is interesting to note that the phenomenon of institutionalized mass delusion has so far received little scientific treatment, although the term is bandied about wherever the problems of political propaganda are discussed. But science has shied away from scrutinizing the collective mental aberration we call mass delusion when it is connected with present-day affairs; it is the historical examples, such as witchcraft and certain forms of mass hysteria, that have been examined in great detail.
In our era of warring ideologies, in a time of battle for man's mind, this question demands attention. What is mass delusion? How does it arise? What can we do to combat it? The fact that I have made an analogy between the totalitarian frame of mind and the disease of mental withdrawal known as schizophrenia indicates that I consider the totalitarian ideology delusional and the totalitarian frame of mind a pathological distortion that may occur in anyone. When we tentatively define delusion as the loss of an independent, verifiable reality, with a consequent relapse into a more primitive state of awareness, we can see how the phenomenon of totalitarianism itself can be considered delusional.
For it is delusional (unadapted to reality) to think of man as an obedient machine. It is delusional to deny his dynamic nature and to try to arrest all his thinking and acting at the infantile stage of submission to authority. It is delusional to believe that there is any one simple answer to the many problems with which life confronts us, and it is delusional to believe that man is so rigid, so unyielding in his structure that he has no ambivalences, no doubts, no conflicts, no warring drives within him.
e Where thinking is isolated without free exchange with other minds and can no longer expand, delusion may follow. Whenever ideas are compartmentalized, behind and between curtains, the process of continual alert confrontation of facts and reality is hampered. The system freezes, becomes rigid, and dies of delusion.
Examples of this can be found in very small communities cut off from the world. On fishing vessels which have been at sea a long time, contagious religious mania coupled with ritual murder has been known to break out. In small village communities there are instances of collective delusion, often under the influence of one obsessed person. The same thing happens in the more gigantic totalitarian communities, cut off from contact with the rest of the world. Is this not what happened in Hitler Germany, where free verification and self-correction were forbidden? Indeed, we can show that historically this is the case with every secluded civilization. If there is not interchange with other people, the civilization degenerates, becomes the victim of its own delusions, and dies.
We can phrase the concept of delusion in a different way. It is a more primitive, distorted form of thinking found in groups or individuals, looked at only from their limited viewpoint. Delusional thinking doesn't know the concept of delusional thinking. The fakir lying on his bed of nails would be called a deluded man if he exhibited his devotion on Fifth Avenue, but among his own people his behavior is considered saintly and eminently sane. A member of a primitive tribe will not see in the ceremony of devil exorcism or a revival meeting an instance of mass delusion. But a man who has passed through this stage of mental development to a level of greater perspective and awareness will recognize that delusional notions lie behind such ceremonies.
Whether or not we are able to detect delusion when it appears depends entirely on circumstances, upon the state of civilization in which we live, upon the groups and the social class to which we belong. For delusion and retrogression are terms which imply a special social and intellectual level of awareness. That is why it is so difficult to detect the delusions and primitive rituals in our own midst. Our present-day civilization is full of mass delusions, prejudices, and collective errors which can be recognized easily if viewed from above, but which cannot be detected if they are seen from within. While the delusion of witchcraft has been banished, we have never freed ourselves from the delusion of cultural or racial inferiority and superiority. Medieval mass obsessions such as tarantism and St. Vitus's dance are little known now among Western nations; in their place we have mass meetings with shouting crowds expressing in delusional ecstasy their affiliation to some political delusion. Instead of the dance fury, we have the raving frenzy of the motor, or the passive peeping contagion of the television screen.
As we saw in the chapter on Totalitaria, mass delusion can be induced. It is simply a question of r organizing and manipulating collective feelings in the proper way. If one can isolate the mass, allow no free thinking, no free exchange, no outside corrective, and can hypnotize the group daily with noises, with press and radio and television, with fear and pseudo-enthusiasms, any delusion can be instilled. People will begin to accept the most primitive and inappropriate acts. Outside occurrences are usually the triggers that unleash hidden hysterical and delusional complexes in people. Collective madness justifies the repressed personal madness in each individual. That is why it is so easy to sloganize people into the mass hysteria of war. The outside enemy who is attacked by vituperative slogans is merely the scapegoat and substitute for all the anger and anxiety that lives inside the harassed people.
Delusions, carefully implanted, are difficult to correct. Reasoning no longer has value; for the lower, more animal type of thinking becomes deaf to any thought on a higher level. If one reasons with a totalitarian who has been impregnated with official cliches, he will sooner or later withdraw into his fortress of collective totalitarian thinking. The mass delusion that gives him his feelings of belonging, of greatness, of omnipotence, is dearer to him than his personal awareness and understanding.
The lonely prisoner in a totalitarian prison camp is the more easily compelled to surrender gradually to the collective thinking of his guardians when part of his own infantile thinking has been conditioned to give in to strong suggestive power. He has to communicate with his guardians lest he be delivered to his own private delusions. Only a few remain their true selves in that heroic battle.
The situation of our prisoners of war in Korea, who lived there for months and years, cannot be studied without taking into account the atmosphere of mass delusion. In a sphere filled with rumors without an opportunity to verify the facts, the mind is ever on the alert, but its observations are distorted. The process of mass brainwashing, with continual propaganda, made it very difficult for the individual to observe his comrades objectively. In such surroundings, it is easy to make an innocent scapegoat for all the suffering of the group-and facts can easily be hallucinated in such an atmosphere of mass contagion.
In one of the prison camps, I had to make a report about a man who was exorcized and even attacked by the others because of his brute homosexual behavior. During the investigation, no fact, no victim, could be reported. Rumors there were plenty, expressing hatred toward a lonely, sarcastic, unsocial being, who had aroused the latent homosexual feelings of the other campers, thereby attacking their manliness.
No P.O.W. accused of collaboration with the enemy should be convicted without a study having been made of the rumors rampant in his camp.
In totalitarian surroundings, hardly anyone keeps his thinking free of contagion, and nearly everyone becomes, albeit temporarily, the victim of delusion.
The Danger of Mental Contagion
Indeed, there is a continual danger of mental contagion. People are in constant psychic exchange with one another. As a country, we have to ask what dangerous mental pollution may come to us from the other side of the border.
Let me make it crystal clear that I am far from insensitive to the danger of totalitarian subversion and aggression with which we are now faced. My own experiences with the Nazis made it painfully obvious to me that these dangers must not be minimized. As a psychologist, too, I am deeply aware of the contagious nature of totalitarian propaganda and of the fact that free citizens in a free country must be on their guard to protect themselves. But we must learn to fight these dangers in democratic ways; and I am afraid that too often in our fight against them we may take a leaf from the totalitarian book. Let me cite but one example of this.
The Feinberg Law in New York State, enacted in order to protect children against the dissemination of dangerous political propaganda, is partly based on this concept of mental contagion. It aims. to protect the schools against the subtle infiltration of subversive ideas. It seems at first sight like a simple solution: you just stop, subversion before it can affect the impressionable minds of our children.
But the fact remains that it presents all kinds of psychological, difficulties. In our fear of being polluted, we create norms and, schemes against which we measure the acceptability of unorthodox ideas, and we forget that the presence of minority ideas, acceptable or not, is one of the ways in which we protect ourselves against the creeping growth of conformist majority thinking in us. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, in his dissenting opinion on the Feinberg Law* made this point:
This is another of those rapidly multiplying legislative enactments which make it dangerous ... to think or say anything except what a transient majority happens to approve at the moment. Basically these laws rest on the belief that Government should supervise and limit the flow of ideas into the minds of men. The tendency of such governmental policy is to mould people into a common intellectual pattern. Quite a different governmental policy rests on the belief that Government should leave the mind and spirit of man absolutely free. Such a governmental policy encourages varied intellectual outlooks in the belief that the best views will prevail. This policy of freedom is in my judgment embodied in the First Amendment and made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth.
Because of this policy, public officials cannot be constitutionally vested with powers to select the ideas people can think about, censor the public views they can express, or choose the persons or groups people can associate with. Public officials with such powers are not public servants; they are public masters.
We cannot prevent one mental contagion through enforcing another. The only way we can give man the strength to withstand mental infection is through giving him the utmost freedom in the exchange of ideas. People have to learn to ask questions without demanding that they be answered immediately. The free man is the man who learns to live with problems in the hope that they will be solved sometime-either in his own generation or the next. Man's curiosity and inquisitiveness have to be stimulated. We have to fight man's growing fear of thinking for himself, of being original, and of being willing to fight for what he believes in. On the other hand, we also have to learn to resist ideas. Governments may be overthrown not only by physical violence, but also by mental violence, by suggestive and menticidal penetration of young minds, by rigid conditioning, regimentation, and prohibition of dissent.
The Explanation Delusion
One of the most coercive delusions is the explanation delusion, the need to explain and interpret everything because the person has a simple ideology in his pocket. Unwittingly the victim of this delusion wraps the magic cloak of omniscience around himself, and this provokes awe and submission in those men who have a strong need for rational explanation of phenomena they do not understand. The quack, for instance, with his gesture of omniscience pushes his victim into a kind of nothingness so that he feels himself become smaller and smaller in relation to the great mysteries of the world. It is this compulsive need to be the wise guy and the magician who knows all the answers that we so often find in the totalitarian world, and nobody, your author included, is completely free from seizing on these premature answers.
It is among the intelligentsia, and especially among those who like to play with thoughts and concepts without really taking part in the cultural endeavors of their epoch, that we often find the glib compulsion to explain everything and to understand nothing. Their retreat into intellectual isolation and ivory-tower philosophy is a source of much hostility and suspicion from those who receive the stones of intellectualism instead of the bread of understanding. The intelligentsia has a special role in our democratic world as teachers of ideas, but every teaching is an emotional relation, a matter of loving your students. It is a moving among them and taking part in their doubts in order to share together the adventure of common exploration of the unknown.
Paradoxically, we may say that we need the experience with the totalitarians if only to discover a reflection of their rigidities in our own democratic system.
The Liberation from Magic Thinking
In our Western civilization, the growth of the mass media of communication has increased the influence of collective pressure on both our prejudices and our unbiased thinking. We live in a world of constant noise which captures our minds even when we are not aware of it.
Already we have in our society the problem of the lonely, unheard voices. I am convinced that there are many wise men among us whose voices and learning would help us to correct that part of our thinking which is delusional. But their wise words are shouted down by an excess of noise from elsewhere. In our society a man can not simply communicate his wisdom and insight any more; in order to be heard, he has to advertise and fortify it with megacyclic power and official labels. An organization must stand behind him and must make sure that he will be rightly timed so that there will be listeners to receive his message. He must have an acknowledged label and official diploma; otherwise his voice is lost. To correct mass delusion is one of the most difficult tasks of democracy. Democracy pleads for freedom of thought, and this means that it demands the right of all men to test all forms of collective emotion and collective thinking. This testing is possible only if constant personal and collective self-criticism is encouraged.
Democracy must face this task of preserving mobility of thought in order to free itself from blind fears and magic. The clash and mutual impact of a variety of opinions which are characteristic of democracy may not directly produce truth, but they prepare the way. `' At this very moment the whole world dances around a delusion, around the magic idea that the material and military power behind an argument will bring us nearer to the truth, and nearer to safety. Yet, one push of the button and the atomic missiles may lead us all to mutual suicide.
In a world of warring and contrasting thoughts and delusions, the solution lies in the delineation of frontiers, of awareness of mutual limits. This agreement on what it is we disagree about is the first step to understanding.
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