The Hyper-Rationality of Crowds: COVID-19 and the Cult of Anxiety

17 May 2020

by Wilfred Thomas

There’s a photograph doing the rounds in the mainstream press (May 13th, above) which depicts a group of nursery children in a playground somewhere in France. What are they doing? Perhaps a little surprisingly, that’s not an easy question to answer. True, they’re in a playground, but what they’re definitely not doing is playing. (For those of you who may, quite understandably, have forgotten those now irrelevant sections of our pre-lockdown vocabulary, “to play” once meant “to do something enjoyable, spontaneous and entertaining”.) Most of them are sitting down, although two of them – breaking free from this majoritarian tyranny – have had the temerity to stand up: an act of such brazen individualism and character in today’s France that one suspects Emmanuel Macron is, as we speak, preparing yet another emergency Presidential decree to ban all “Fifth-Republic-endangering leg-flexing amongst minors”. But whether standing or sitting, they’re all caught in the same trap – or rather, “traps”. A teacher, interpreting French social distancing rules in what we might most politely describe as an “exuberant” way, has positioned each of the children in what the Daily Mail – less politely but very accurately – refers to as “isolation zones”. Chalked on the ground, each child has a box. Different colours have been used in their creation, like some grudging, Orwellian concession to anyone still clinging to frivolous pre-lockdown notions of “childhood innocence”. The boxes, it seems, mark the limits of each child’s world for the duration of playtime, although a Freudian psychologist might well argue that to persist with this box motif for much longer will be to ensure that those limits endure in various complex ways across each child’s life.

What are we to make of this? Sometimes, particularly during times of social crisis, I find myself paying more-than-ordinary levels of attention to these transient, ostensibly insignificant bits of flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shores of our popular culture: here, a metropolitan, Oxbridge-educated BBC reporter using a “clever” euphemism to thinly veil her contempt for the working classes; there, Piers Morgan – looking more than ever like a container after someone’s had it filled up but forgotten to shout “when” – smiling smugly on Good Morning Britain and slavishly spouting the government line on the lockdown. All the turbulence and all of the wider social and cultural problems that you’re struggling to process – all of that “big stuff” – often tends to crystallise in these tiny fragments of everyday experience. Of course, if you’re a lockdown sceptic it’s not hard to find moments like that right now. We see our innovative French teacher’s fundamentalist mania for human sanitation and the complete cancellation of biological risk echoed in recent media stories about Premiership footballers returning to training but only where tackling is banned, and in those deeply dispiriting recent surveys reporting that large numbers of the UK public don’t want the lockdown to end. For me, though, there’s something nicely symbolic about that photograph of the French kids. The country that once gave us Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) now gives us Emmanuel Macron’s Isolation Separating the Children (2020). What it shows is a crowd that’s not a crowd: a crowd made up of kids whose state leaders see enough risk in the basic human necessity of biological proximity to prevent them forming a crowd. In this essay, I want to unpick the wider social and cultural problems encapsulated within this image.

So how did we get here, to a world in which children can be herded into their little playpark Guantanamo cells not as a punishment but – remarkably – as an indicator of a society’s love and care for those same children? One word that springs immediately to mind is “madness.” “We must be mad – literally mad – to be permitting all of this,” you may very well say to yourself (if, that is, you have a fondness for paraphrasing Enoch Powell). Madness. It’s a good word, isn’t it? Rolls off the tongue. Helps to burn off steam. After all, who doesn’t like to channel their inner cab driver every now and then? “The world’s gone mad, mate. Take that wot’s-’is-name. Bonking Boris. That’s ’im. I had ’im in the back of me cab once. Screw loose, if you ask me. It’s all that sex wot’s done it. And that Ferguson? Shag other people’s wives all you like mate, but take your mathematical modelling back to the funny farm wiv ya when you’re done!” And yet, sadly, individual madness can’t really explain our current predicament. It’s a bit like blaming the invasion of Iraq in 2003 solely on President Bush and his family’s supposed mania for oil. Nice and comforting and all that, but hardly convincing when considered in light of the messy complexities of 21st century geo-politics. The problem with any individualised idea of madness is that we have a large group of people in the West right now who have allowed – have willingly and happily enabled – our lockdown societies to emerge. You and I may not be directly culpable. We may not agree with what’s happening. We may turn the cold eye of reproof upon our fellow citizens. If society were a golf club, we might even go so far as to write a strongly-worded letter of complaint to the club secretary. But whether we like it or not, right now we’re individual members of a society that, precisely as a society, has decided that battery-farming kids, playing football without tackling and hiding under the bed in order to avoid social interaction are all genuinely, 100% bona fide great ideas.

Perhaps we’re talking less about individual, clinical madness, then, and rather more about some form of collective madness? Is it the case, for instance, that we’ve ended up in this mess due to some “crowd psychology” type issue? That’s a much stronger idea. After all, we’ve got a pretty sizeable social, social-psychological and cultural literature to draw upon when pursuing that line of thought. Crowds, mobs, rioters, protesters – gatherings of this type have long bothered the powers that be in modern states. As a consequence, much academic effort has been devoted to understanding the ways in which crowds form and the things they get up to once they’ve formed. Consider for instance Gustav Le Bon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind. It’s a classic of its genre. Le Bon got a lot of things wrong, of course, but his observations on what we would now call “deindividuation” still influence much work in sociology and social psychology. Individuals, he noted, tend not to see themselves as individuals once they join a large group. In various ways they tend to subsume themselves within, and take much of their identity from, a larger group identity. In itself that’s not a problem. Do you feel that your local Women’s Institute provides you with a moral compass? Is your life lived according to the precepts handed down to you by a Neighbourhood Watch Group? Great. A bit odd, but knock yourself out. The problem, as Le Bon saw immediately, was that when deviant or antisocial ideas start to circulate within a group, its deindividuated members – now cut adrift from lessons learnt at mother’s knee, so to speak – are primed and triggered to act purely on group impulse. They are, in other words, easily and quickly led astray. “Xs are sub-human.” “Yeah, that’s right, they are!” “I tell you what, let’s kill some Xs!!” “No… let’s kill ALL Xs!!!” And so on and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, Le Bon and subsequent authors in this field weren’t particularly complimentary in their descriptions of crowds or the types of collective madness that can descend upon crowds. For Le Bon, the crowd was “only powerful for destruction”. Elsewhere, he wrote of how “a crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile. Like a savage, it is not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire and the realisation of its desire.” Not to be outdone, and writing 30 years after Le Bon, Emory Bogardus suggested that “the crowd is a common yet dangerous form of intersocial stimulation… A crowd of human beings is closely related to a herd of cattle, a covey of birds, a shoal of fish. There are the same standard responses to danger signals, the same casual leadership, the same stampeding.” Moreover, he went on, as crowd numbers increase, so too do the “desires” of the crowd “assume superficial and reckless expressions”.

Savages. Impulsiveness. Stampeding. Dangerous stimulation. Recklessness. Cast your mind back to the photograph of that playground in France. Does anything about that scene strike you as having been the work of savages? Do the neatly partitioned chalk “isolation zones” suggest we’re dealing with dangerous, impulsive individuals? What about those Premier League footballers being allowed to play football but not to tackle? Have the suits who work at the FA and the English Premier League suddenly come over all reckless? And those people who want to stay at home, hiding under their beds until the virus has gone away: are they unable to admit that anything can come between their desires and the realisation of their desires? Just in case you’re struggling to keep up or have a short attention span (I flatter myself that you’re still reading), the answers to these questions, in descending order, are: No, no, no and no.

It seems to me that if we’re trying to understand public responses to the coronavirus then any talk of either individual, clinical madness or collective, social-psychological madness misses the mark. This lockdown debacle is driven by something a lot closer to textbook clinical anxiety. Le Bon’s madding crowds were driven by irrationality and active aggression, but what we’ve seen during this lockdown are crowds driven by anxiety in a very literal, almost clinical sense: that is, a form of hyper-rationality that causes total passivity. Anxious people aren’t irrational like our mad crowds: they’re hyper-rational. People who are rational (i.e., clinically normal) see risk and are prepared to live alongside it (“Okay, I could die of BSE, but I’m still going to eat beef because I like it.”). Complicated, global and massified societies as we know them (or knew them) depend on the overwhelming majority of us thinking in that way. People who are hyper-rational, on the other hand, just can’t let go of that slim statistical chance that they might be the one tragic case to die or suffer from X. They could be the special one. Their child could be the special one. Someone they know from down the road could be the special one. To them, this uncertainty – this sense that something might happen that they can’t control – is unbearable, and they cope with this lack of control by trying to reassert control. Often that means trying to have a risk cancelled entirely, or, alternatively, trying to hide from it. What anxious people can’t do, however, is live alongside risk. They can’t ever say, “It could be me, but I accept that risk and carry on.”

The problem here is that we can’t all be special. We can’t all have society rearrange itself to suit our own personal fears and worries. A society – any society – can’t cope with large numbers of people suddenly starting to act in this way. That’s the problem with anxiety when it leaks out of the clinic and into society. True, it might not initially seem as disruptive as the collective madness of a crowd: after all, hyper-rational crowds don’t want a fight – they want to hide. They don’t want to get in your face, because your face is a petri dish harbouring deadly microbes. But right now, mad crowds – crowds full of violence, recklessness, savagery and action – would be easy to deal with. Armies can be brought onto streets and mad crowds can be dispersed from streets. Well, okay, not easy to deal with, but at the very least easier, because what can you do to disperse hyper-rational crowds that are too scared to congregate together in the first place? Get the army to drag them out from under their beds, pop their underpants on for them and then transport them to their respective workplaces, like a slapstick Carry On film plot gone wrong? One smiles. But reasoned argument won’t shake them from their convictions either. Unfortunately, anxious people have a knack of turning any fact, model or statistic around and showing you that, actually, factually, statistically, they’re very vulnerable and could very well die or suffer at any moment. “Look,” the Minister for Health might implore until he’s blue in the face, “this research team says you’ll be fine – now get back to work!” “But actually,” they respond in sepulchral tones that drift up and through their bedroom mattresses, “if you look carefully, on page three of that report the authors specifically urge caution when interpreting their results for people in my age group and with my health profile, so I’m staying here, nice and warm and safe!” Good luck winning that argument, Matt Hancock.

This type of thing has been bubbling away for a while now in millennial “cancel culture” (where “to cancel” of course means “to undertake an entirely passive action that prevents engagement with anything you perceive as having the potential to ‘harm’ you”). Don’t like what some man (“Eurgh!”) might be going to say at a forthcoming university event? Don’t just no-platform him, get him sacked! Contact his employer! Organise a petition! Publish his home address on your Facebook group! Ruin his life! You can’t control the risk he poses, so cancel the risk altogether: ensure that no-one has to risk coming into contact with him again!

Welcome to the hyper-rational cult of anxiety, making sure you and your loved ones can’t be exposed to risk, ever again.

We know all of this, of course. It’s been happening for a while. What’s changed during this coronavirus outbreak is that governments have suddenly started feeding this hyper-rational anxiety like never before. That’s how we end up in that wonderful French playground. French kids have got to go back to school whilst microbes continue to stalk the earth, have they? No problem. Separate them from their friends! Draw boundaries! Build walls! Build higher walls! Buy substitute amniotic fluid sacs off the internet for all pupils! Every child is special! Every child is at risk! All risks must be cancelled, forever!

Not that the UK is any better. Every evening a cardboard-cut-out Minister is wheeled out for the TV cameras. Fully varnished and ready to autocue, s/he tells us how special we all are – each and every one of us. Yellow and black backgrounds. Serious faces. Danger. Risk. All around us. The Government can’t cancel the risk. Not this time. You could die. You might die. We’re sorry. We understand. It’s okay to wet yourself. But wear PPE. Sure, stay at home. Hide. Under the bed if it makes you feel better. Here, have some free money. Bleach your carpets. Disinfect your tongue. Wear a mask. Put a bag over your head to keep your mask clean. Cry. Sob. Buy a ventilator. On Ebay. Stay safe. That’s an order. Quack! Woof!

The result, of course, is an utterly dysfunctional society, and one that will give some people a free pass from being proper members of it for years to come. Make no mistake, what we’re dealing with here are socially malodorous problems. The stench has been creeping up from the intellectual basement of our society for quite some time, like thin coils of hyper-rational, narcissistic affront, getting ever closer to asphyxiating long-standing ideas of citizenship, self-responsibility, free speech and public culture. The problem we’ve got in the UK right now is that our government’s response to COVID-19 has effectively shut all the doors and windows in the house. Am I exaggerating? I wonder.

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IanE
IanE
15 days ago

Yes, your view certainly seems correct – and leaves the only hope as the well-known Charles Mackay quote: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

Let’s hope the recovery is not too slow, although the damage done to date is near catastrophic anyway.

IanE
IanE
15 days ago
Reply to  IanE

p.s. Oh yes – with the proviso that one regards hyper-rationality as a form of madness.

Mark
Mark
15 days ago

Would be interesting to hear your view on what I think of as one of the key elements of the imposition of the lockdown in the US sphere, which is the sharp and rather sudden expulsion of the concept of “herd immunity” across the Pale and beyond the bounds of acceptable policy discussion.

As I recall it in broad terms, one day in probably late February or early March herd immunity was basically the settled way to deal with a highly transmissible, low ifr virus such as this one, once it had clearly beaten attempts to control it at the borders. You protect the vulnerable while the virus spreads through the population and increases the general level of immunity to the point where it can no longer spread rapidly, while managing the rapidity of the spread to keep within (ideally) your healthcare capacity. The next day it was verboten. Unacceptable. “Darwinism”, as I had it described to my by some of the more hysterical amongst my acquaintances. Some kind of modern equivalent of leaving the elderly and the weak behind in the snow as the tribe moved on.

I wasn’t really paying attention at the time (I wasn’t expecting such a wholesale overturning of received opinion and policy, and I was concentrating on watching the disease numbers around the world). It all seemed to happen so quickly it was over even before I realised it was going to change the world dramatically for the worse, almost overnight.

Would it have made a difference if the concept had been termed “population immunity”, rather than”herd immunity”? Was the objection as shallow as that? Surely not – presumably that was just bad pr, exploited by those who wanted to get herd immunity off the table to concentrate on the policies they preferred. I recalled some intellectuals, clearly with no conception of the kind of damage a coercive lockdown must do to a modern economy and society, let alone to the poorer countries around the world, pushing comical “hammer and dance” theories about wiping the disease out via sustained full court pressure from the state followed by amusingly Orwellian “track and trace” policies, but they seemed absurdly implausible as policy contenders.

Even the Swedes, who were clearly following the “standard” epidemiological approach, suddenly seemed scared to admit that they were aiming for herd immunity. with repeated explicit denials combined with rather unconvincing and evasive muttering about that being a “byproduct” of their policy.

Surely there’s scope for a few studies, essays and theses there, over the next few years (if there’s sufficient spare university funding left or such frivolities)?

Barney McGrew
Barney McGrew
15 days ago
Reply to  Mark

That’s exactly how it seemed to me, too. I was prepared to get the disease – I wasn’t looking forward to it, but at least I knew that after it was over life would resume.

OliverH
OliverH
15 days ago
Reply to  Barney McGrew

When it first entered the UK I felt 100% sure I would catch it in the coming few weeks, I was prepared for this, expected a week or so of misery from the infection and then to resume life. I was also preparing to take sensible measures to reduce my chance of spreading and catching it, but not to the extent of shutting my whole life down. When I knew I would catch it I was optimistic. Now amid this lockdown I’m not sure if I will catch it, I don’t know if I might have aready had it, and my stress levels are much higher, and not because of the pesky virus. What we need now, most of all, is an organised group against the health and safety nanny state culture, striving for an end to all the stupid legislative and insurance company crap and a recognition that our risks are our own. I’m sure there could be a good political party in this.

Nige
Nige
15 days ago
Reply to  Mark

Agreed. I think the word ‘herd’ was the trigger. The frantic media and commentor reaction was built on this. The UK government’s use of language has been sloppy and ill-judged throughout.

grammarschoolman
grammarschoolman
14 days ago
Reply to  Nige

Why? ‘Herd immunity’ is a standard term, and always has been. For instance, here’s a science piece from 2016 – long before this virus was ever invented – which explains it clearly, using it without scare quotes or trigger warnings throughout:

https://www.ovg.ox.ac.uk/news/herd-immunity-how-does-it-work

One Palm
14 days ago
Reply to  Mark

Absolutely right Mark!!!

MD66
MD66
13 days ago
Reply to  Mark

David Starkey identifies that point in time in his discussion here https://youtu.be/8S8Js-tEmlg . Says it was panic in the government that changed the approach.

Mark
Mark
13 days ago
Reply to  MD66

That’s a good interview Starkey gives and I’m sure he’s correct about the panic. He doesn’t really go into the issue I raise here in depth, though he touches on it peripherally.

Good link, anyway, thanks.

Barney McGrew
Barney McGrew
15 days ago

An excellent piece. Yes, the balance between living a full life with risks and attempting to eliminate all risks is a delicate one. Once a person loses the distraction of day-to-day living in the real world, and begins to fixate on their fears, strengthened by government and media propaganda, I can see that they may never recover.

I once decided to take up motorcycling, and bought the bike and all the gear. I enjoyed riding around a car park, and took the preliminary test to enable me to ride on the road. My mistake was to ‘do my research’ and buy a book on motorcycling. It described what to do in a crash, and how to slide the bike out from under you so it didn’t land on top of you – something that might never happen to me in practice, and would probably be instinctive, anyway. But the idea was planted in my mind. I didn’t *need* a motorbike – I had a car. I remember that night just lying there awake imagining all the terrible things that might happen to me on a bike and how unnecessary it all was, and how I would regret it forever if it should happen. Next day I ditched the whole idea – at great expense. If I’d not read that book and just ridden the damn thing I would have been fine…

Edgar Friendly
Edgar Friendly
15 days ago

That picture of the playground with kids boxed into lonely squares reminds me of a part in Meetings with Remarkable Men by Gurdjieff where he says that Yezidis used to draw a circle around their children to keep them in one place. It was a form of magic and apparently it worked, the children couldn’t escape the circle until it had been broken by somebody else. This seems to be another form of magic, we hope the virus cannot penetrate the square and harm the young ones. Humans are still so primal.

Eve
Eve
14 days ago

This is what happens when science replaces God.

Richard G Brooke
Richard G Brooke
14 days ago

You are right about the cause of this risk aversion: anxiety. But what is the cause of that, given that today’s society has more knowledge and wealth and therefore more safety than ever before?

Hyper-rationality partly explains it. But again I think it’s a symptom, not a cause. The ultimate cause I suggest is subjectivism. This is a fundamental belief reinvigourated by Kant and promoted in universities ever since (hence its reach), that reality is unknowable to an individual mind because the mind has built in filters (‘categories’) that distort its perception. Kant then invented a ‘noumenal’ world that we could gain knowledge of through intuition. Such intution is of course endlessly contentious which leaves western intellectuals with only one means of validating ideas: taking a poll, which in a democracy entails entrusting the leaders with making the day to day decisions that guide our lives.

This is why socialism has been so successful at creeping into every aspect of our lives even when society is led by those who profess to believe in freedom: unless you accept that reason is valid at an individual level and can defend that principle, you will feel bound to ‘help’ people by doing their thinking for them. This gives the populace a) a false sense of security because it turns out that politicians are fallible and b) an underlying feeling of panic because their lives are forever at the mercy of others’ thinking rather than their own. How can they have self-esteem and confidence living like that?

It also explains the rise in tribalism, groupthink and fear of different ideas.

To my knowledge, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism provides the only philosophic system to refute Kant and describe a properly rational way for humans to live on earth. Back in 1961 she described what we are witnessing today and the solution to it in her book, “The New Intellectual”, this extract from which I find particularly pertinent: https://courses.aynrand.org/lexicon/pragmatism/ .

007point5
007point5
14 days ago

Well said sir.

Dave Patterson
14 days ago

‘crowd’ isn’t really the right frame here, ‘crowds’ are what you see at football matches, and their behavior is generally organic. what we see in GB and other countries in regard to this phantom menace called ‘covid!!ooaascary!!!’ is population management. They’ve been working on it for decades, or over a century depending on where you want to start counting, and they’ve got it pretty much down to a science. It’s encouraging to see the amount of resistance we’re seeing, although more discouraging to see the amount of passivity. Like the guy said – interesting times. Will Big Brother prevail??? Or will he have to retrench and refine and try again in a year or 3????

grammarschoolman
grammarschoolman
12 days ago
Reply to  Dave Patterson

Crowds are no longer what you see at football matches, unfortunately.

One Palm
13 days ago

it’s not hard to find moments like that right now… everything fine soon.
Good Luck!!!

Edgar Friendly
Edgar Friendly
12 days ago

Also, having read through the piece, what comes to mind immediately following the summation are Calhoun’s ‘mouse paradise’ overpopulation experiments, and the aberrant behaviours described therein. The effects of this current iteration of society’s rationale are disconcertingly similar to his findings in many ways.

hail
hail
8 days ago

“Welcome to the hyper-rational cult of anxiety, making sure you and your loved ones can’t be exposed to risk, ever again.”

I believe we can go further with the “cult” concept:

Is Corona a Religious Cult?

https://hailtoyou.wordpress.com/2020/05/18/against-the-corona-panic-part-xii-an-anthropological-study-into-the-corona-cult-pro-panic-hardliners-and-the-media-succeeded-in-erecting-a-virus-centered-apocalypse-cult-as-state-religion-and-in/

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