It does not take a genius schooled in the art of historical analysis to recognise that establishing a completely objective and factually accurate version of the past is essentially impossible.  This is mostly due to subjective perspective. A stunningly strategic victory for the reds might, in the eyes of the blues, be a case of “we wuz robbed”.  Only one match took place – there is no counter-factual – but the two rivals can have a very different perception of outcome.

Douglas Murray writes eloquently elsewhere about this with reference to an increasingly polarised America, describing a “growing trend” whereby otherwise rational people bitterly disagree over what they have just seen – or are even watching unfold in real time. Yet while I agree with Murray that we can expect “American unreality to enter a whole new orbit”, I am not so sure that this is quite as new as he makes out. We do not need to travel as far – either geographically or temporally – as Jonathan Swift’s fictional islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu to be reminded that homo sapiens is particularly adept at sorting itself into tribal factions and to hell with reconciliation.

And if this tribalism is based on existential beliefs it really can get ugly.

Into this politically-charged maelstrom, the introduction of the delicate subject of Covid-19 – along with discussions of the pros and cons of lockdowns, mask mandates, “following the science” and accelerated vaccination programmes – has seemingly made the possibility of rational discourse even more remote.

Why are the majority in fear of a respiratory virus to which humans already have substantial and proven cross-immunity, when the epidemic is demonstrably over?  How can it be that everyone agrees that lockdowns have terrible consequences, yet authorities enforce them even when the various metrics used to justify them were on the wane anyway?  Why are non-specific PCR tests still being used on high cycle rates to test asymptomatic people?

And why have Western societies enforced previously unthinkably harsh – and demonstrably mindless – restrictions, trampling all over previously cherished constitutional and customary checks and balances on government power?  And is it appropriate to rush the development and approval process for a vaccine?  What has turned previously long-standing Western democracies into tyrannical police states?

It seems to be a dissenting minority that is asking these questions, with a majority – and a leadership – not wishing to engage with the challenging, morally complex consequences of policy decisions.  These questions should not be off-limits.  But for some reason, they seem to be. Why is this? Dissent used to be tolerated (almost encouraged) in this country. Seemingly, it is no longer.

It feels, to the dissenter, as if we are living in a mass hysteria – or collective delusion: a situation where a large body of people manages to perpetuate irrational thought for an extended period of time.

But what is this phenomenon? How does it happen, is it a regular occurrence and – perhaps most importantly – how can it end?

Collective Delusion: An Explosive Cocktail

It seems there are standard ingredients:

  1. Multiple people that are sufficiently connected;
  2. Mechanisms to organise these people as per tribal allegiance (e.g. supporters of the same team or social media echo chambers); and
  3. A collective distress, or threat (perceived or real).

If the combination of the above is particularly spicy, a frisson of scapegoating – a social phenomenon that involves the blaming of a sub-set of others for the ‘ills’ being suffered – yields particularly spectacular results.

Getting the mix of these ingredients right (or, from society’s point of view, wrong) can result in a chain reaction (a correct use of the phrase “exponential growth”). Critical thinking is abandoned and contempt for the scapegoats grows. Professor Barry Markovsky, a Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina, describes what happens next: “As more and more group members become ensnared in a positive feedback loop, the perceived threat is legitimized, only broadening and deepening social distress further”.

And this is where it gets interesting.  We’ve all heard the story of isolated cases whereby people spend extended periods of “living a lie”, such as the famous case of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese officer who hid in the jungle in the Philippines for nigh on 30 years after the end of WW2, because he did not believe the conflict had ended.  Such examples of individual delusion are relatively easy for us to rationalise (compare: the Emperor’s New Clothes) – it gets harder to do this when we observe large populations persisting with their collective delusion in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

Big-enders vs Little-enders

But let us return to more recent history.  Despite a hero’s welcome in Japan, Onoda – quite understandably, given his worldview – found home to be somewhat different from how he had imagined things, and moved to Brazil, introducing our next exhibit.

In the first half of the 20th century, about 200,000 Japanese emigrated to Brazil for economic reasons, seeking work on coffee plantations.  This did not work out, and many became unskilled labourers in and around São Paulo; a large majority established themselves as subsistence farmers.  This expatriate community grew, retaining a highly distinct Japanese character, perhaps reflecting an ultimate wish to someday return to the motherland.  There was relatively little cultural assimilation.

So far, so normal. However, the Second World War provided a shock to this nascent community at a critical juncture: Brazil declared war on the Axis powers in 1942. Yet despite suffering some restrictions, as economic migrants providing a service (farming), the Japanese community was left to its own devices.

Subsequent events have offered fascinating insights for subsequent historians who have examined it, albeit through the imperfect lens of time.

The conclusion of the war in the Pacific – lent credence, one would have thought, by the August 1945 broadcast by Emperor Hirohito acknowledging Japan’s defeat – triggered a period of collective delusion that persisted for many years, and arguably has never fully been reconciled (perhaps explaining why, thirty years later, Onoda found himself a home from home there).

What happened is extraordinary. Readers need no reminding that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just been eviscerated with utmost brutality.  But within days, rumours surfaced that the entire Allied Fleet had been sunk by a Japanese wonder-weapon. Allied Forces had unconditionally surrendered.  The Japanese were going to send a “dream ship” to take people home. Disinformation seemed to thrive in this post-war fog and fake news became the order of the day. For example, a community news bulletin on 7 October 1945 even stated that “The Panama Canal is being repaired by 65,000 American soldiers under the supervision of the Japanese Army”.  Two distinct factions emerged, those that believed Japan had won the war (the Kachigumi) and a minority that accepted defeat (the Makegumi).

Clearly, this cognitive dissonance was not sustainable. Naively, we might assume that the community – somehow, painfully – would have passed through the five stages of grief and come to recognise reality. However, Kachigumi majority never really progressed beyond denial and anger: terrorism ensued. The Makegumi were subjected to an array of extra-judicial killings. The shocked host nation arranged for delegates from the neutral Swedish Consulate to outline historical fact, but this only served to inflame tensions further.

Thankfully, violence ceased by 1947, but tribal differences remained.  The Kachigumi itself split into two groups – fanatics and sympathisers. Fanatics never let go of their “truth” (that Japan had “won”) and somehow managed to maintain this illusion for the rest of their lives.  Over time, the sympathisers – reconciling Japan’s “victory” with a world that seemed to behave as if it had lost – integrated with the Makegumi.

And that is the strange tale of a collective delusion that lasted for many years and was – on the basis that the historical fact of Japan’s surrender was denied by a large group of otherwise rational individuals for the rest of their lives – never fully resolved.

Lessons for today?

We seem to be going through tumultuous times. The 2020 strain of collective delusion seems to be a more international affair. History provides us with plenty of examples where otherwise civilised society has gone through periods of upheaval, but are there specific lessons to be learned?

The Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century – the usual tale trotted out for these kind of analyses – seem to be a relic of a distant past, a case of an uneducated village going doolally in the face of extreme hardship.  Encyclopaedia Britannica’s explanation of its cause is pithy: “a result of a combination of church politics, family feuds, and hysterical children, all of which unfolded in a vacuum of political authority”.

Substitute “Brexit” for “church” and “innumerate politicians” for “children”, and this description feels disturbingly apposite. The prevalence of global networks and social media echo chambers might explain the international nature of our very own 21st century take on the collective delusion genre.

Professor Markovsky sums this up well: “Irrational beliefs, and the often ill-considered responses they engender, can spread like an infection across groups as large as nations or as small as nuclear families. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Social impact theory would suggest that the best approach to administering social disinfectant is via large numbers of geographically nearby, authoritative nonbelievers”.

How long will the Kachigumi of today hold out? Over time we can expect today’s equivalent of the sympathiser faction to split from these fanatics – actions taken in 2020 will be justified, however implausibly, as being for the greater good.  But if history is anything to go by (and it usually is), then deep down, the sympathiser faction will already be questioning why it is necessary to suppress evidence and observed fact to maintain their established tribal beliefs.

Let us hope this process does not take several years.

Dr Alex Starling  is an advisor to and non-executive director of various early-stage technology companies.