The Madness of Crowds

Wed, Mar 21, 2018

Charles Mackay’s classic ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ touches on bizarre beliefs shared by relatively large numbers of people. Then there are the psychoses shared on a smaller scale - the folie à deux, a syndrome where delusional beliefs may be shared with another person – or, more generally, the folie à plusieurs, known to DSM as the Shared Psychotic Disorder.

A startling example of the folie à deux is that of the twins Ursula and Sabina Eriksson who, among other things, deliberately and repeatedly hurled themselves in front of motorway traffic

Architecturally, a spandrel is the roughly triangular space between two arches and the ceiling. They’re by-products of having arches and ceilings - nobody planned a spandrel. Pretty soon, though, artists realised they could decorate these incidental surfaces and they became features of interest.

Spandrels in the Dom at Aachen

Spandrels in the Dom at Aachen

By extension, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called the accidental by-products of evolution, ‘spandrels’. They were critiquing an adaptationist point of view that saw every phenotypic feature as a fitness solution. Not everything, they argued, can be understood as an adaptation to evolutionary pressure. Sometimes stuff just happened.

But it seems unlikely that humans have accidentally acquired our great capacity for delusion, not least because of its potential to be counterproductive unless it conferred a benefit. Indeed, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how a tendency to share and promulgate convictions could be advantageous among relatively small groups of evolving humans who were likely to be related to some close degree.

Given we have this inclination, perhaps folies à plusieurs are the stuff of our everyday lives. Perhaps we ought to expect to find our families and our workplaces relying upon a penchant for shared delusions and our willingness to maintain implausible fictions.

Soon after you’ve left a long-held job, say, the daily urgencies seem very like a strange psychotic episode; and the hierarchies, demands and necessities of what was just a short time ago so terribly important suddenly vanish – not only because you’re no longer working at that particular job but because the delusion that that job and that company were so very vital and important is no longer being shared.


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