Living in a Psychotic Age

28 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2022

See all articles by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise

Date Written: November 3, 2022


This paper describes the phenomenon of mass psychosis. It explains that human beings, when exposed to too much stress, act as the herd animals we are, and can become victim to strange psychological group reactions. Large numbers of people may lose touch with reality and descend into a delusionary state. These strange or ‘delusionary’ ideas—often focused on all that is wrong with society—are further reinforced by social pressure and the phenomenon of groupthink. It is pointed out that participants in this form of mass psychosis live in a world of conspiracies, in which primitive defense mechanisms like splitting and projection come to the fore.
This paper discusses some of the most disconcerting examples of mass psychosis, frequently relating to totalitarian, ideological experiments. It is highlighted that when mass delusions are in force, citizens of a country may be living in a permanent state of terror, seeing “enemies” everywhere, both internally and externally. The role of mass regression, hyper-individualism and narcissism are also explored in the context of mass psychosis.

It is further attested that when people within a society become estranged from each other they are vulnerable to a state of free-floating anxiety, which provides the ideal breeding ground for demagogue-like leaders to rise to the fore. Being in a position of power and authority, they have the opportunity to externalize their inner theatre, acting out and magnifying their strange ideas and thought processes on a public stage. The construction of these cult-like relationships between leaders and followers demonstrates how effective the use of mirroring and idealizing transference can be.

The final section of this paper explores and suggests how the spell of mass psychosis might be broken. This includes a review of various interventional techniques, such as engaging in emotional judo, getting rid of a demagogue-like leader, and effective management of the mass media. In particular, this paper stresses the important role of a civic culture, and a context in which education can prevent the dangerous cultivation of mass psychosis.

Keywords: Mass Psychosis, Psychic Epidemic, Groupthink, Social Pressure, Delusions, Conspiracies, Reality Testing, Primitive Defences, Regression, Demagogue Leaders, Totalitarian, Narcissism, Mirroring and Idealizing Transference, Mass Media, Civic Culture, Education

Suggested Citation

Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R., Living in a Psychotic Age (November 3, 2022). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2022/50/EFE, Available at SSRN: or

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise ( email )

Fontainebleau Cedex, F-77305

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