Let’s Talk About Mass Formation
Since the fall of 2021, I became re-familiarized with the phenomenon of mass formation. Having graduated with a psychology degree from university, I tend to use a psychological lens when noting society’s response to current events. The response to Covid has effected many societies of the world so strongly, it’s intriguing to explore what psychological phenomena may be at play.
My curiosity piqued when I heard Dr. Mattias Desmet, a clinical psychologist from Ghent University, share about his knowledge of mass formation on a variety of podcasts. He described in more concise terms what I was sensing with regard to there being a predominant “blind allegiance” to a specific narrative around Covid.
Another way to refer to phenomenon could be crowd formation or groupthink. It involves looking at how a mass of people, the crowd, appear bound to one another due to their unprocessed generalized emotion connecting to provided script. The phenomena also speculates that there could be an element of hypnosis to it. Individuals hypnotized to a broader narrative or idea that being them into a collective, therefore appearing like participators in a shared collective mindset.
Discussions around the mass formation phenomenon can explore how much of the phenomenon is natural and how much of it is manipulated. But first, do you sense that the phenomenon is happening. If so, what are the basic contributing factors allowing mass formation to take hold.
As stated in his discussion with Dan Astin-Gregory, Dr. Mattias Desmet indicates that four conditions have to be fulfilled before a large scale phenomenon of mass formation can emerge. These are the conditions:
The first and most important condition is that there should be people experiencing a lack of social bonds, a lack of social connectedness.
The second condition is that there have to be a lot of people who experience a lack of meaning making. These first two conditions are closely associated to each other. People are human, humans are social beings and if they experience a lack of social connectedness, a lack of social bond, they will probably also experience a lack of meaning making.
The third condition is that there have to be a lot of people who experience a lot of free-floating anxiety. This means anxiety that is not connected to a mental representation. (Ex. If you see a lion and you’re scared, then you know what you’re sacred of — your anxiety in this case is connected to a mental representation). If it is not connected to a mental representation, you end up in an extremely aversive negative emotional state in which you deal with the kind of anxiety that you cannot control.
The fourth condition is a lot of free-floating frustration and aggression. The kind of aggression that you feel inside of yourself but that you cannot direct or aim at a certain object or cause.
What do you think? Can you see the associations between each of these four conditions? The phenomenon of mass formation makes sense to me. I see it as a good model to note why individuals may rationalize some strategies even when faced with evidence that such strategies may not be very effective.
When under these conditions, a chosen narrative can be distributed through the mass media. The intent of the narrative is to indicate an object of anxiety and at the same time providing a strategy to deal with this object of anxiety. When the individual has free-floating anxiety, there’s a willingness for the individuals of the population to go along with participating in the strategy. Why? Because the free-floating anxiety, which is so hard to control, then connects to the newly proposed object of anxiety.
There is now a mental representation to link with the free-floating anxiety. Individuals are willing to opt in because they want to relieve the free-floating anxiety since it causes them pain or associates with a sense of panic. So when an object is provided for individuals to direct their anxiety, they will take it. Then when the strategy is provided on how to handle it, the individuals willingly accept this too.
Engaging in the newly suggested strategy allows people to switch from a highly aversive, negative mental state of social isolation (interpersonal isolation) to the exact opposite — to the extremely high-level of connectedness. Their personal investment in the strategy is high, whether or not the suggested strategy is effective or not. The strategy is resolves the individuals concern of their free-floating anxiety, and can meet the need for moving away from feeling socially isolated or having a lack of meaning in their lives.
If you’d like to listen to Dr. Mattias Desmet speak about mass formation, you can check out these podcast episodes:
Dr. Mattias Desmet speaking with Dan Astin-Gregory:
Dr. Mattias Desmet on Aubrey Marcus Podcast:
Chris Martensen interview:
I really like the framing of the conditions described for the process of mass formation. It speaks to the idea that the ‘real’ reason someone might buy into a particular story is not because they fully agree with it or find it 100% true. There’s a strong chance someone believes a chosen narrative, because attachment to the narrative leads to new social bonds, renewed sense of meaning, or relief from free-floating anxiety. For some individuals the ‘real’ reason may be to satisfy all of these needs.