Joe Rogan, ‘mass formation psychosis’ and why people really believe unscientific things

Scientists say ‘mass formation psychosis’ isn’t a real thing. But if it isn’t, then how do we explain why people believe Dr Robert Malone and what they heard on ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ in the first place?

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Monday 10 January 2022 20:41
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Fans of comedian and political commentator Joe Rogan’s podcast have been claiming that people are getting vaccinated because of “mass formation psychosis” after an episode went viral, then got banned. Weak-minded sheeple, the argument goes, have been hypnotized into believing that vaccines work.

On December 31, Rogan’s Spotify podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience”, which reaches 11 million people per episode, featured an interview with Dr Robert Malone. Malone is a former vaccine researcher who has become a vaccine skeptic, and he claimed that people were seeking out vaccines because of “mass formation psychosis.”

Malone also argued that “mass formation psychosis” explained Hitler’s rise. “When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other and has free-floating anxiety,” he said, “their attention gets focused by a leader or a series of events on one small point, just like hypnosis — they literally become hypnotized and can be led anywhere.”

The “mass formation psychosis” argument, like the anti-vaccine argument, is complete nonsense. It is not a term used by psychiatrists or researchers. The idea that Hitler used some sort of mass hypnotism has been thoroughly rejected by historians.

Of course, there’s also extensive evidence that vaccines do work, and that people need them for protection from Covid as well as a host of other diseases. But the popularity of the “mass formation psychosis” argument does show the more mundane, less hypnotic ways in which people can be led to false and harmful beliefs. And it underlines how dangerous right-wing media — which at this point arguably includes Joe Rogan’s podcast — has become.

If “mass formation psychosis” isn’t a thing, though, how do you explain the enthusiasm with which so many people have embraced the existence of “mass formation psychosis”? If reactionaries, Joe Rogan fans, and reactionary Joe Rogan fans aren’t the victims of mass formation psychosis themselves, why on earth do they believe in mass formation psychosis?

The answer is pretty straightforward. You don’t need magic powers to make people believe things that aren’t true. You just need a trusted source to lie to them. That’s especially true if that trusted source is confirming or buttressing a strong group identity — like a fandom, or a political party.

Everyone, on every side of politics, engages in motivated reasoning. That means that they are more likely to accept information which makes their own side look good, and more likely to reject information which makes their own side look bad. Conversely, they’re eager to accept information that suggests that their enemies are fools, dupes, or bad actors.

Conservatives aren’t more likely to engage in motivated reasoning than anyone else, according to researchers. Criticize Biden on social media for completely failing to provide adequate testing, for example, and Democrats will quickly pop up to defend him. But conservative media is more likely to spread misinformation. That’s been especially true with Covid. Right-wing outlets like Fox News have shamelessly pushed conspiracy theories about Covid, to such an extent that those who trust the network are hopelessly misinformed.

Fully 50 percent of people who trust Fox News thought the government was exaggerating Covid deaths, compared to 38 percent of the general population, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in October. Fox News fans also were more likely to believe that self-administering the de-wormer ivermectin was an effective Covid treatment. (It is not, and can cause serious health problems.)

“The Joe Rogan Experience” isn’t exactly part of right-wing media. Rogan’s brand is amorphous and anti-establishment; he sort of endorsed Bernie Sanders during the 2020 Democratic primary, after all. But he’s also associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” — public figures like Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, and Ben Shapiro, who claim the left is silencing free speech and are hostile to social justice movements. And he endorses and uses health supplements of dubious worth, such as Alpha Brain (supposed to increase your neurotransmitters), quercetin, and glucosamine.

Rogan’s audience is a mix of people who distrust establishment media, people who distrust the left, and people who seek out alternative, scientifically unproven health advice. Not surprisingly, this is a perfect stew for disinformation about a public health crisis that has been intensely politicized by reactionaries.

Rogan himself has embraced ivermectin. And while he’s said that he’s not anti-vaxx, he’s also claimed that young people don’t “need” vaccines. (Young people absolutely should get vaccinated.) His broadcasting of the “mass formation psychosis” is just another example of how a public figure with a huge platform who is unable or unwilling to vet guests or provide accurate health information can mislead his listeners.

Rogan has apologized for some of his vaccine misinformation by explaining, “A lot of times we’re drinking or we’re high and I say stupid sh*t.” That kind of anti-establishment authenticity is what his fans love. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s lying to them about a public health crisis in which 836,000 people in the United States have died. His viewers believe in him, and he’s using that belief to put them and their families at risk. The problem isn’t “mass formation psychosis.” The problem is the irresponsibility of people like Joe Rogan and a lot of misplaced trust.

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