What Is Mass Formation Psychosis?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In general, "mass formation psychosis" isn't an established mental health or social psychology term. The American Psychological Association refers to it as "a bogus theory that lacks evidence — or even recognition by scientists." The term may be meant to describe mass psychogenic illness, or psychotic symptoms seen in groups of people, but it isn't necessarily rooted in research. Although mass formation psychosis can be considered a widely debunked theory, other types of mass psychological symptoms, such as groupthink and mass hysteria, tend to be recognized as legitimate by professionals. If your mental health has been impacted by any of these phenomena, working with a licensed therapist could be beneficial.

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Experiencing anxiety related to group dynamics?

How did the term "mass formation psychosis" become popularized?

In December 2021, an American doctor named Robert Malone used the phrase "mass formation psychosis" on the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) podcast. Malone used this phrase to describe people taking action to protect themselves against the COVID-19 virus, such as getting vaccinated or undergoing tests, suggesting these behaviors could be symptoms of mental illness. Multiple experts denounced Malone's claims as misinformation, and in the years since, they have largely maintained that there was no evidence of psychosis behind protective COVID-19-related behaviors.

Ultimately, 270 doctors and researchers wrote an open letter to Spotify, the platform where the Joe Rogan Experience podcast was featured, arguing that it was spreading dangerous and potentially harmful misinformation. The JRE podcast reached an estimated 11 million listeners per episode at that time. Many musicians boycotted Spotify because the platform hosted the Joe Rogan podcast. Some musical artists, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, were among those who removed their songs from Spotify in an effort to stand in solidarity with the doctors and scientists fighting misinformation.

Mass formation hypnosis

The month after Robert Malone discussed mass formation psychosis on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, musician Eric Clapton also spoke out against the COVID-19 vaccine. Clapton stated that he had received the COVID-19 vaccine, but only because he had been hypnotized. He suggested that commercials and YouTube videos contained subliminal messages to promote "mass formation hypnosis," or to hypnotize large groups of people to get the vaccine.

Mass formation hypnosis may sound similar to Robert Malone’s theory of mass formation psychosis. However, Clapton did not credit the theory to Malone. Rather, he said he learned of it from Mattias Desmet, a Belgian psychology professor. An academic article by Thierry Simonelli confirms that Desmet coined the term in his book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism. 

Simonelli describes Desmet's core argument, which is that our current governments have become totalitarian and may be controlling the masses through hypnosis. Simonelli suggests that Desmet's argument may be more about promoting his political philosophy than putting forth ideas rooted in social sciences research.

Debunking mass formation psychosis

As mass formation psychosis isn't usually considered an academic phrase, there generally aren't any research studies on the topic. Numerous psychologists told the journalistic agency Routers that mass formation psychosis isn't a concept studied or taught in the fields of psychology or psychiatry. Professionals who study crowd psychology and forms of socially spread mental illness also reported that they'd never heard of the term. Some experts speculated that Robert Malone likely made up the term himself, though others suggest Malone likely learned of the term from Mattias Desmet.

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Other mass mental health events

Some forms of mass mental health events are described in the psychology literature and considered by many to be legitimate.

Groupthink

Groupthink is a psychological term describing a form of human behavior in which people operating as a group begin to accept perspectives or beliefs that they wouldn't otherwise view as true, simply because the rest of the group believes in them. 

Groupthink can lead to potential problems. In workplaces, groupthink may reduce a group's ability to problem-solve and come up with good ideas, since people experiencing groupthink tend not to speak their minds or think independently from the group. 

In political science, groupthink may lead to poor or even dangerous political decisions, such as the choice to go to war. When a group becomes highly insulated and everyone in the group believes their beliefs are correct and moral, groupthink tends to be more likely to occur.

Groupthink can occur in cults and among people in radical political groups. Some journalists have argued that those spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories online could be engaging in groupthink after having their views reinforced and radicalized through small pockets online in which they only communicate with others who agree with them.

Mass hysteria

Mass hysteria, which can also be called mass psychogenic illness, generally refers to a group of people experiencing shared delusional beliefs that they are facing a threat or have been exposed to something dangerous, such as poison or a virus. These individuals may become upset and experience free-floating anxiety. 

People experiencing mass hysteria may also feel physically ill, despite there not being anything that caused illness. When illness is involved, it may be explained by the nocebo effect, which can describe a person feeling ill because they believe they will become ill.

Mass hysteria tends to be more accepted by professionals than the concept of mass formation psychosis, but it can still be contested. However, examples of mass psychogenic illness have been recorded throughout history, including the Salem witch trials, the dancing plague of 1518, the Red Scare, and the Satanic Panic.

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Experiencing anxiety related to group dynamics?

Remote therapy for anxiety

Often, people are drawn to conspiracy theories like the idea of mass formation psychosis because they experience anxiety or a lack of control due to an unpredictable situation, like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, conspiracy theories usually do not relieve these feelings. Instead, they may increase them and lead a person down a spiral in which increasing anxiety can lead to increasingly radical beliefs.

If you've been negatively affected by conspiracy theories, misinformation, or political polarization, you may want to consider remote therapy. Therapy can provide you with a space to talk through your anxiety with an unbiased professional, and you can choose to receive treatment from the comfort of your own home or any location you prefer. 

Research studies suggest that online therapy can be an effective form of treatment for anxiety. A meta-analysis of multiple research studies, including a total of 1,071 participants, found that participating in remote cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) typically reduced participants' anxiety. The study authors also noted that remote therapy could remove many of the barriers associated with seeking therapy in person.

Takeaway

Mass formation psychosis and mass formation hypnosis can be considered debunked theories that have been promoted by an American doctor named Robert Malone and a Belgian psychology professor named Mattias Desmet. However, phenomena like groupthink and mass hysteria are generally accepted and can explain some forms of group behavior. If you’ve been impacted by groupthink, mass hysteria, or other group dynamics that have led to anxiety or other mental health concerns, it may be helpful to reach out to a licensed therapist in person or online.

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