Skepticism

“Mass Formation Psychosis:” Robert Malone’s Super-villain Origin Story

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A wise man once said, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” This maxim, also known as Kay’s Law, seems right when you think about the idea of “mob mentality” and “mass hysteria” and “stampedes,” all of which I’ve talked about in the past. But is it right? I mean, if you’ve seen those past videos you may have an idea where I’m going here. But I’ll go on, regardless.

I’m thinking about this due to a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. Obviously I subscribe and listen to every show as soon as it debuts because I’m such a huge fan and…okay, no, I saw it on social media like everyone else with two braincells to rub together: on New Year’s Eve, Rogan hosted Dr. Robert Malone, a quack who has previously made the anti-vaxxer rounds for suggesting that people should not get the COVID-19 vaccine, going so far as to tell Steve Bannon on his podcast (yes, this is the darkest timeline so of course Steve Bannon has a podcast) last summer that the vaccines would make the pandemic worse.

Malone then hit the quack jackpot – the quackpot if you will – when he was booked on Rogan’s show, where he told the audience of millions of gullible people that a third of the population has been “hypnotized” into believing scientists studying the pandemic in an act he called “mass formation psychosis,” which is also, according to him, how the Nazis came to power in Germany. Ironic.

Malone didn’t get in on this pseudoscientific circuit just because he’s a quack doctor, but specifically because he claims he invented mRNA vaccines. And he did! I mean, in the same way that about 400 other scientists can claim to have invented mRNA vaccines, because it’s no longer the year 1928 when one random dude can make a lifesaving medical discovery by leaving a loaf of bread out on the counter for too long.

And yes, I know it was actually a petri dish full of Staphylococcus aureus and not a loaf of bread but “loaf of bread” is objectively funnier than “Staphylococcus aureus” so that’s what I went with, but I’m including this correction because a few months ago I made a joke about how gas is made of dinosaurs and I got a bunch of angry messages about how technically gas comes from ancient oceanic plants, which, yes, is true and yes this is a science channel dedicated to correcting misinformation but “gas is made of dinosaurs” is funnier god damn it.

Uh, anyway. What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Dr. Robert Malone. Back in the 1980s he did some important experiments demonstrating that you can surround strands of mRNA with fat and expose them to cells, which will then absorb the mRNA and start producing proteins. It’s a very important step, but it’s just one step on the great staircase that led us to mRNA COVID vaccines in 2020. It wasn’t the first step, nor the last, but it was important.

So why did Dr. Malone, who performed an important experiment showing that mRNA could be used as a therapeutic medical tool, who is a real doctor, and who has consulted on vaccines for various pharmaceutical companies, on the anti-mRNA vaccine speaking circuit?

Well, the Atlantic published a revealing bio on Dr. Malone last summer in which they point out some key facts, like how he describes his lack of fame resulting from his “discovery” as “intellectual rape.” Yes, really.

I’m no psychologist but his growing anger and resentment is positively “villain origin story”: first he was upset that the Salk Institute, where he performed his mRNA experiment, and Vical, the pharmaceutical company he dropped out of Salk to work for, “profited from his work and essentially prevented him from further pursuing his research” (which the Salk Institute denies having any evidence of). 

Then the pandemic happened, and in February of 2020 he actually contracted COVID-19. He recovered but was left with “long COVID” symptoms like a lingering cough, fatigue, and hypertension. When the vaccines debuted, he got the Moderna shot hoping it would improve his symptoms but he says it only made them worse.

And then you have the fact that despite the collaborative process of vaccine creation, a few scientists have achieved some level of fame, like Katalin Karikó, the biochemist who helped make mRNA vaccines less inflammatory – aka, another important step to where we are now. Karikó has been careful to stress her relatively small role in the decades of research that went into the vaccines, but Malone was furious to see her get the attention he clearly thinks he deserves. According to Karikó, Malone sent her an email claiming that he was her “mentor” and “coach” despite the fact that they’d only met once when he invited her to give a talk in 1997, and he told her “This is not going to end well.”

That…that’s a villain origin story, right there. It hits all the buttons: overinflated sense of accomplishment? Check. Misplaced sense of being unappreciated? Check. Vaguely threatening message to a successful woman he views as some kind of nemesis when she barely thinks of him at all? Check.

So now he’s made his final villain choice: instead of holing up on his 50-acre horse farm with his loving wife and patiently waiting to be included in a Nobel Prize, he’s found his long-sought after fame on the quack circuit, where brainless dolts like Joe Rogan unquestioningly refer to him as the sole inventor of the mRNA vaccine and hang on every word he says.

And now he’s dropped the term “mass formation psychosis” to describe the behavior of billions of people who would like to get vaccinated and end the pandemic. After all, if he “invented” mRNA vaccines then why can’t he also be a sociologist? The Joe Rogans of the world aren’t going to stop him.

“Mass formation psychosis” doesn’t seem to be a thing that existed prior to its coining by  Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Belgium’s Ghent University and, from what I can tell, also a Grade A whackaloon also trying to weasel into the conspiracy theory pro-COVID circuit, as suggested by interviews he’s done with third tier dipshit YouTubers as late as last November continuing to argue that COVID-19 isn’t as dangerous as everyone seems to think. I’m honestly stunned that anyone is stupid enough to continue along that line – it’s equivalent to the conservatives who are still arguing that climate change isn’t real at all, as opposed to those who have realized that’s so obviously stupid they can’t get away with it anymore so have upgraded to “well we can’t trust the scientists who say climate change is really bad for us humans.” (If you want to know more about the updating of conservative anti-global warming rhetoric, check out this video I made a few months ago.)

So Desmet coined “mass formation psychosis” some time last year and Malone picked it up and made it famous on Rogan’s show. But it’s essentially no different from the idea of “mob mentality,” the idea that in a crowd, people effectively lose their sense of individuality and just blindly go along with the whatever the rest of the crowd is doing. You probably already can guess I think this is stupid bullshit but it IS based on real science – after all, the most successful misinformation has a little bit of truth to it to make it really take off.

My apologies but at this point I’m just going to summarize a few previous videos I made on topics that relate to this. Back in September, I talked about “mass sociogenic (or psychogenic) illness,” previously known as “mass hysteria,” related to a study that suggested teenagers are experiencing this in regards to the adoption of traits associated with Tourette’s, which they “catch” more or less by watching influencers on TikTok and other social media outlets. While some sociologists disagreed with that study as a bit of internal squabbling, the idea of mass sociogenic illnesses is not in dispute. People really can pass along mental disorders and strange behaviors, especially when the conditions are right for it – previous research suggests those conditions are extremely stressful on a societal level, like during medieval ages when it seems that there was a new sociogenic plague every week or so.

It’s worth noting, though, that there is absolutely no evidence that at any time in history did a mass sociogenic illness result in the majority of a population listening to scientists and taking precautionary measures against a deadly disease. Mass sociogenic illnesses tend to be a limited portion of a population behaving in an unusual way, like laughing or dancing without stopping for long periods of time. Not thinking critically and trying to protect the most vulnerable members of their society. That’s…that’s not a thing. Unfortunately.

And waaaaay back in 2018, I also talked about the idea of “mob mentality,” specifically as it related to Derren Brown. That’s right, I bet you didn’t think this video was going to include a reference to a magician. But it’s relevant – Malone (and Desmet before him) explicitly described “mass formation psychosis” as a mob of people being “hypnotized” by leaders. 

First of all, “hypnosis” doesn’t really work the way the public tends to think of it. A hypnotist can’t make you do something you don’t want to do, and he can only make very suggestible people, or people who are hungry for attention, do things they already are ready to do. As an example, I worked my way through college in a magic shop, and we had a resident hypnotist who occasionally helped out when we didn’t have coverage. He would constantly do shit like take my hands in his, look deeply into my eyes, and invite me over to his apartment that night. I would say “ew no go away” because he was gross and weird. He had no magical power over me because I truly did not want to sleep with him. But he was pretty successful on the college circuit! Doing his hypno act, I mean. I don’t know how successful he was with the ladies. I don’t want to know. I assume he’s a pick up artist now.

Anyway, that brings me to Derren Brown. A few years ago he produced a special where he supposedly showed the madness of crowds by hosting a supposed reality show in which a live studio audience, all of whom were wearing masks to remain “anonymous,” could watch a supposedly unsuspecting man go about his day and they could vote on whether or not to fuck with him. So for instance, they could decide whether he would go home for a quiet evening with friends or be falsely arrested for shoplifting. The anonymous audience members chose to fuck with him in evil ways. Therefore, being in a mob removes a person’s individuality and capability of making moral decisions. Right? Wrong!

Two psychologists rebutted the ersatz “experiment” by pointing out that it was based on a completely debunked sociological concept that was easily 30 (now 40) years out of date. In fact, they wrote, 

“(The past several decades of) research has shown that rather than a loss of identity within crowds, there is a shift from personal to social levels of identification. Instead of acting in terms of the norms and behavioural limits of one’s personal identity, within a psychological crowd one therefore acts in coherence with the norms of one’s salient collective identity. These norms will differ depending upon which social identity is salient at any given time, e.g. as a resident of a local community, supporter of a sports team, or as a member of an audience at a television recording. Crowd behaviour is therefore rooted in social context, such that individuals may even act more pro-socially in a crowd than they would do alone (see e.g. the non-violent resistance of Indian crowds in the face of colonial British rule, or within-crowd helping during emergencies.”

So here’s the little kernel of truth in the idea of people getting vaccinated due to “mass formation psychosis”: while it’s in no way psychosis in the way we think of mass sociogenic illness, there is evidence to suggest that in a society that values science and the greater good – a society that cares about the elderly, newborns, and the disabled – people may be more likely to step into that role of also caring about those things and taking positive action to make the world a better place. It’s possible that if you control for a culture’s access to vaccines and ability to deliver them to the general public, you may find that societies that place a higher value on collectivism and pro-social behavior do a better job at getting vaccinated. New Zealand, for instance, has vaccinated 95% of their eligible population with at least one dose. In the United States we have a nearly unlimited ability to procure vaccines and put them in arms, yet only about 74% of our eligible population has at least one dose and we haven’t bothered to set up any program for distributing the shots we aren’t using. Is it possible that this difference is due to one society valuing science and the greater good and the other society valuing individualism at all costs? Possibly! For more on that one, check out this video from July of 2020 where I discuss how individualist societies dealt with the pandemic differently than collectivist societies.

So. Are you influenced by the society around you? Of course. Culture is the ocean the fish swim in – they don’t see it, but it’s all around them and it affects everything they do in big and small ways. Are people getting vaccinated and wearing masks because they’re the hypnotized victims of “mass formation psychosis?” No. Hypnotists are creepy weirdos and respectable people do not listen to them. Listening to scientists and taking care of the most vulnerable people in our society is just being a good human.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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