Discredited 'mass formation psychosis' theory spreads COVID misinformation

The term is making the rounds online, but it isn't based on factual medical information. It's bunk.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
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Oscar Gonzalez
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A crowd of people crossing a city street.

Properly wearing a face mask over your nose and mouth has been shown to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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"Mass formation psychosis" is a new term popping up on social media and in  Google searches, and it's both misleading and potentially dangerous. The medical-sounding phrase is being used by conspiracy theorists and people opposed to COVID-19 vaccines to describe what they view as "strange" behavior, such as standing in long lines to get tested and getting a COVID shot. 

The term started gaining attention in December when Dr. Robert Malone, a vocal opponent of the COVID-19 vaccines who refers to himself as the inventor of the mRNA vaccine, appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. He suggested there was a type of hypnosis happening across the globe, calling it "mass formation psychosis." The problem: It isn't real.

Malone himself has since backed off from using the word "psychosis" in this context.

As is the case with much misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, this notion isn't based on factual medical information. It's an idea presented by one person to explain what he views as illogical behavior by governments and individuals during the pandemic. It's since been picked up by people who spread COVID misinformation, in an attempt to furnish a purportedly medical explanation for behavior they simply don't like. So-called mass psychosis has been discredited by medical experts.

On Jan. 12, more than 250 medical professionals called on Spotify to stop the spread of COVID misinformation, citing Rogan's podcast episode featuring Malone. Malone has also been banned from Twitter for violating the platform's COVID-19 misinformation policies. 

The term gained traction online as cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 surged in the US and across the world in late 2021. Though there's been an increase in breakthrough cases, COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization. People who are unvaccinated are up to 20 times more likely to be hospitalized.

Here's what you need to know about the discredited theory of mass formation psychosis and why people are talking about it. 

Where did the misguided notion of "mass formation psychosis" come from?

Comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan interviewed Malone in late December on his show The Joe Rogan Experience, on Spotify. Malone talked about his ban from Twitter and shared more misinformation about the COVID vaccines. He also brought up so-called 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 a series of events on one small point, just like hypnosis," Malone told Rogan in December.

According to Malone, the idea of mass formation psychosis came from Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium. In a talk on the Peak Prosperity YouTube channel in December, Desmet discussed how he came to the idea of mass formation and criticized pandemic measures such as lockdowns and wearing masks. 

"From May 2020 onwards, I had the feeling that the core of the problem ... was not the biological problem. It was a psychological problem," Desmet said. 

Desmet expanded on his theory in a Reddit AMA in August on r/lockdownskepticism, an anti-lockdown and COVID misinformation subreddit, citing a "lack of social bond" in society as an opportunity for a leader to get people to believe outlandish ideas, which is how he sees the pandemic lockdown measures that governments have employed.

Desmet also links mass formation to Nazi Germany and to Soviet Russia under Stalin's regime. 

Is it a real thing? No.

Mass formation psychosis isn't found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an essential reference work on mental disorders that's used by health care professionals. 

While experts say there's evidence groups or crowds can influence a person's behavior, that isn't the same as suggesting everyone is experiencing mass hypnosis or mass psychosis. 

Steven Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews, told Reuters that the concept of a mass psychosis is "more metaphor than science, more ideology than fact." He added that the claim that people completely "lose their sense of identity and their ability to reason" has been discredited by contemporary work on groups and crowds. 

When reached for comment, Desmet pushed back, saying mass formation has been studied for hundreds of years, beginning with scholars such as Gustave LeBon. 

But Harold Takooshian, a professor of psychology at Fordham University, said LeBon's "group mind" theory is something different. "In 1895, Gustave LeBon used 'group mind' to explain how a street crowd could transform calm individuals into an angry crowd," Takooshian said. He points to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as an example of group mind, where some people got caught up in the moment and became part of a violent mob. 

Other experts have also pointed out that people choosing to get COVID-19 vaccines and follow public health guidance aren't delusional or under hypnosis. Richard McNally, a professor of clinical psychology at Harvard University, told the AP that these people are instead "fully responsive to the arguments and evidence adduced by the relevant scientific experts."

COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be safe and be highly effective at preventing serious illness and death. People who are unvaccinated are over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. 

In an email, Malone backtracked some, saying he no longer uses the word "psychosis" with mass formation after speaking with Desmet. 

Robert Malone on the Joe Rogan Experience

Robert Malone on the Joe Rogan Experience. 

Screenshot by Oscar Gonzalez

Who is Robert Malone? 

Malone refers to himself as the inventor of mRNA vaccines, though that's misleading. In 1989, he wrote an important paper about developing mRNA vaccines, but this doesn't make him their creator. 

Moreover, the COVID-19 vaccines developed two decades later by Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, but they weren't developed with Malone's input. He says he has several patents on the mRNA vaccines being used right now, but that has yet to be confirmed. 

Last year, Malone began appearing on right-wing talk shows to make false claims about the mRNA vaccines. His Twitter account, where he amassed a sizable following, was deleted by the platform after multiple misinformation tweets

Rogan released clips of Malone's appearance on Twitter and YouTube, but those platforms removed the videos days later. These clips have shown up on alternative video platforms such as Rumble and can still be found posted on Facebook. 

The more than 250 medical professionals who called out Rogan and Spotify in an open letter last week are hoping to stop the COVID misinformation at the source.

"By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions," the letter says, "Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals."