We find ourselves in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology. The latest scientific discoveries permeate every aspect of our lives, influencing not only our individual choices but also the collective decisions of our society. In this age, rationality takes center stage, guiding our perceptions of what constitutes a fulfilling life.
Our actions often mirror what science deems to be good, and our capabilities are defined by the boundaries of technology. Amid this prevailing rationality, we sometimes neglect to ponder the deeper questions that lend meaning to our existence. We forget to contemplate our place in the vast universe and the inherent value that certain aspects of life hold, independent of any utilitarian purpose.
This one-sided approach, where rationality reigns supreme, has come to dominate entire civilizations. While it has undoubtedly fueled remarkable technological progress, it has also given rise to concerning indicators of societies grappling with an identity crisis and a sense of purposelessness.
In his book, “The Psychology of Totalitarianism,” Mattias Desmet explores the cultural and ideological shift that lies at the heart of the rise of rationalism and delves into the psychological consequences of this transformation.
With the ascent of a new ideology that elevates science and technology as the paramount principles guiding human life, a gradual erosion of life’s intrinsic vitality occurs. But the more control over ourselves and our environment the more we loose our ability to deal with the unexpected, and the uncontrollable, plunging into a state of permanent anxiety.
This environment, according to Desmet, is the breeding ground for a mass formation, a condition in which a large part of the population succumb to a narrative that is not grounded in reality, but that provides them with what atomized and frustrated individuals long for: an enemy, a clear battle, a purpose, and a sense of collective belonging.
In times marked by pervasive feelings of meaninglessness, discontent, and a crisis of values and identity, it becomes crucial to remain vigilant in recognizing the initial indicators of mass formation. To shield ourselves from its influence, we must be prepared to snap out of the collective trance, by firmly anchoring ourselves in reality, and by voicing our truth in a genuine and honest way.
Mattias Desmet’s “Psychology of Totalitarianism” provides an invaluable starting point to understand and navigate this monumental task of preserving our individuality and resisting the allure of mass formation.
Science and Ideology
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the challenges facing academia and the scientific community, particularly the issue of replication failures in scientific research. Authors such as Andrew Chang, Phillip Li, and John P. Ioannidis have drawn attention to the credibility of scientific findings, revealing high rates of replication failure in various fields. For example, economics research replicates successfully only half of the time, while in cancer research and biomedicine, the rates soar to 60% and 85%, respectively. Despite these challenges to the reliability of scientific findings, our reliance on science remains steadfast. But what is it about scientific research that holds such sway over us?
Mattias Desmet sheds light on the reasons behind our susceptibility to scientific research and our tendency to suspend critical thinking when confronted with it. He identifies a key factor: the psychological impact of numbers. Desmet notes that numbers have a unique psychological effect, creating a nearly irresistible illusion of objectivity, especially when presented visually through charts or graphs. People tend to perceive numbers as concrete, unquestionable facts, but this perception obscures the reality that numbers are inherently relative and subject to interpretation, often influenced by ideological and subjective perspectives.
Desmet also explores the concept of an “artificial society,” a notion originally examined by Hannah Arendt. Arendt suggests that totalitarianism stems from the naive belief that science can create a flawless, utopian society, leading to psychological consequences as it overlooks the subjective and ideological frameworks underpinning numerical data.
Numbers often carry the assumption of being unambiguous, objective truths, masking the underlying beliefs and unique worldviews that shape them. Only upon closer examination do these numbers reveal the specific interpretations and narratives they subtly promote. If numbers are accepted uncritically as indisputable truth, it becomes challenging to engage in meaningful discussions about the frameworks that inform these numbers:
“In this way, as a society, we are captivated by an endless procession of numbers and fail to engage in open debates about the subjective and ideological frameworks that shape our interpretations. Unspoken tensions, fears, and ideological disagreements often lurk beneath the surface, fueling polarization in society.”
Furthermore, the rise of science has brought about significant changes in how people engage with work and one another, leading to the proliferation of seemingly purposeless professions and a decline in the quality of human relationships. On the professional front, an increasing number of jobs fail to tap into individuals’ creativity or skills in a meaningful way, often lacking a clear purpose beyond mere employment. For instance, many find themselves trapped in highly bureaucratic roles involving repetitive tasks that seem devoid of inherent significance. Meanwhile, in the realm of human relationships, online interactions have largely substituted face to face interactions, leading to heightened social isolation, social anxiety, and a yearning for authentic connections.
Mass Formation and Totalitarianism
Science, over time, has evolved to become more than just a method of inquiry or a means of understanding the natural world — it has assumed the mantle of a primary source of truth and guidance. In this new paradigm, science’s authority shapes not only our perceptions of reality but also the very fabric of our thoughts and actions.
Desmet links this shift towards an unwavering faith in science to the creation of a favorable landscape for the appearance of mass formation, a psychological state that renders individuals susceptible to totalitarian ideologies. Specifically, he identifies four conditions that allow mass formation to manifest:
1. Loneliness and Social Isolation: Mass formation often thrives in environments where individuals feel isolated and disconnected from one another. In these settings, people are more likely to seek a sense of belonging and purpose, making them receptive to persuasive narratives.
2. Lack of Meaning in Life: When individuals perceive their lives as devoid of meaning, they become vulnerable to ideologies that promise purpose and direction. Mass formations tend to fill this existential void by offering a clear-cut mission or cause.
3. Free-Floating Anxiety: A sense of pervasive, undefined anxiety can leave people yearning for answers and solutions. Mass formation preys on this anxiety by providing a concrete target for apprehension, attributing it to a specific source or group.
4. Aggression and Frustration: Feelings of frustration and aggression, often stemming from personal or societal challenges, can be channeled and vented within the context of mass formation. The suggested narrative offers a collective target for these emotions, creating an outlet for individuals to express their grievances.
Mass formation typically begins when a compelling narrative spreads through mass media channels, addressing a prevalent anxiety-inducing concern. For instance, during the rise of Nazism, it was the scapegoating of Jews, and during the COVID-19 crisis, it was the propagation of anti-vaccine sentiments. This narrative connects the free-floating anxiety to a specific cause, providing individuals with a perceived solution and fostering social support for the proposed strategy:
“If under the aforementioned circumstances, a suggestive story is spread through the mass media that indicates an object of anxiety — for example, the aristocracy under Stalinism, the Jews under Nazism, the virus, and later, the anti-vaxxers during the corona virus crisis — and at the same time offers a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety, there is a real chance that all the free-flowing anxiety will attach itself to that object and there will be broad social support for the implementation of the strategy to control that object of anxiety.”
As mass formation takes hold, regulations and guidelines imposed by the narrative become ritualistic behaviors symbolizing submission to the collective interest. These rules may no longer have logical or practical significance, but individuals adhere to them as a demonstration of conformity.
Desmet draws a compelling parallel between mass formation and hypnosis, underscoring the role of persuasive voices in seducing people into this state. During mass formation, individuals’ field of attention narrows, rendering them emotionally insensitive to suffering beyond the scope of the narrative. This narrowing also leads to an alarming intolerance of dissenting opinions, as those who challenge the narrative are perceived as disruptive threats to the cohesion of the mass formation.
In this context, dissenters are often labeled as antisocial, irrational, aversive, or frustrating because their viewpoints jeopardize the coherence of the narrative and hinder the collective venting of latent aggressions within the mass formation. And if the dissenting voices are successfully shut, the totalitarian regime will spiral into self-destruction of its own population.