ALS Topic 31- Viral Ideas, Viral Emotions, Psychological & Social Contagion

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 30 March 2019
Venue: · Adelaide
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Note: About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.

Focus Questions


2. HOW FRAGILE ARE THE MENTAL BARRIERS WE SET BETWEEN "REALITY" AND SO-CALLED PARANORMAL PHENOMENA? e.g. see Brent Swancer (November 8, 2017) "Bizarre Paranormal Mysteries of World War I" Mysterious Universe website @ [Thor, comment: As a child in the 1950s I heard occasional stories of mass delusions of angelic saviour ghosts, or vengeful Riders of the Apocalypse, among soldiers in battle in World War 1. At the time the stories seemed to come from an impossible ancient era, yet it was only 40 years before, a mere flicker of time as it now seems at 73 (hey, and I'm not old ..)

3. YOU CAN CATCH A COLD. CAN YOU CATCH A MENTAL IMBALANCE, EVEN MADNESS? The evidence seems to be yes (think of examples) so the real questions might be Why? and What can be done about it? Here is an extreme, but not unusual example: Jack Hitt (January 2019) "The Real Story Behind The Havana Embassy Mystery" - U.S. officials say dozens of diplomats in Cuba were felled by a sonic “attack.” But the likeliest culprit is far less futuristic—and much more terrifying". The Hive, Vanity Fair website @  [ Thor, comment: Psychologists report that this sort of infectious mass psychosis happens in dozens of schools around the world every year]

4. WHY DO PEOPLE, DOCTORS INCLUDED, RESIST THE IDEA OF ANTI-PLACEBOS? Placebos really work (for many, not all). Illnesses and their symptoms can be improved by fake pills. The reason? Healing is done by the body itself : the immune system has massive resources to help with self-repair. The immune system just needs 'credible' instructions to get working. Yet we know that immune systems can turn feral, and that at least sometimes this is governed by a mental condition.

5. "IS MENTAL ILLNESS" ABOUT DISORDERED THINKING, OR DISORDERED BEHAVIOUR, OR CHEMICAL IMBALANCES, OR SOCIETAL IMBALANCES? We usually interpret mental illness from erratic behaviour. However, mental illness is often 'certified' and controlled by measuring or correcting chemical imbalances. To what extent are chemical imbalances symptoms rather than causes of mental illness? Does it make sense to put mental illnesses on a continuum of disordered thinking patterns, some of them extending beyond the individual? Can disordered thinking patterns lead to chemical imbalances and erratic behaviour. What is a 'disordered thinking pattern' exactly?

6. HOW LEGITIMATE IS MARKETING AS A TOOL FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL CONTAGION? Marketing, including political marketing, is the profession of penetrating the rational and emotional barriers we erect against intrusion, and compelling us to act in a manner to benefit the person or organization marketing.

7. WHAT CAUSES AN IDEA TO BECOME VIRAL, AND CAN THE IDEA'S SURVIVAL BE PREDICTED? Example: Robert Owen, an English factory owner in the early 19th Century was in many ways the founder of practical Socialism. His message fitted the times, and his ideas became viral, yet also met resistance, much of which he found irrational: "All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer" [Robert Owen 1828. Note: 'queer' here means strange. see ]. .

8. ARE EFFECTIVE PROCEDURES GENERALLY MORE INFECTIOUS THAN CONVINCING (BUT NOT NECESSARILY CORRECT) EXPLANATIONS? Right through history and up until the present incorrect, even bizarre, explanations have accompanied more or less successful procedures. Think of examples. (Every profession and trade, as well as your own life management involves procedures + storylines to support the procedures. Either the procedure or the supporting storyline or both can be wrong, or correct/effective - with different consequences).

9. ARE SO-CALLED COMMUNAL CULTURES MORE, OR LESS, VULNERABLE TO VIRAL EMOTIONS AND BELIEFS THAN SO-CALLED INDIVIDUALISTIC CULTURES? What is the evidence? For reference, as an example, the United States claims to value individualism above all else, while, say, Japanese culture claims to be a model of a communal value system.

10. HOW USEFUL IS THE ANALOGY OF VIRAL INFECTION IN THE SOCIAL SPHERE COMPARED TO BIOLOGICAL VIRAL INFECTION IN LIVING BODIES? For reference, your body has about 37 trillion human cells all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Tap dancing along are over 100 trillion bacteria, viruses, fungi and various other critters. Some of them are bad guys, which is why we have an immune system, but most of these characters we can't live without. They influence or even control digestions, mood, skin conditions and many other things. Your physical boundary encloses and extraordinarily busy and complex society.



Comments & Extra Reading

Wikipedia (2019) "Henny Penny" (a.k.a.) Chicken Little, @  [ this is an iconic folk tale with many versions in many countries going back at least 2500 years. It deals with the ever recurring social phenomena of mass hysteria]

Wikipedia (2019) "Robert Owen" @  [In the early 19th Century, Robert Owen, a brilliant and highly successful entrepreneur factory owner, was in many ways the founder of the viral idea of practical socialism]

Jack Hitt (January 2019) "The Real Story Behind The Havana Embassy Mystery" - U.S. officials say dozens of diplomats in Cuba were felled by a sonic “attack.” But the likeliest culprit is far less futuristic—and much more terrifying". The Hive, Vanity Fair website @  [ Thor, comment: Psychologists report that this sort of infectious mass psychosis happens in dozens of schools around the world every year]

Urban Dictionary (n.d.) 'Staffinfection' acts like a viral infection, as in : Guacacado (October 29, 2018) " StaffInfection - Mandatory Meetings held to pass useless information to supervisors / middle management / proles and design useless campaigns to "improve morale" while reducing headcount, increasing workloads and reducing pay/bonuses. Intent of the staffinfection is to have it evolve into Circle jerk but this rarely occurs as attendance is mandatory, and like an infection - no one wants to be around it.

Sample Scenario: The Leader announced at the staffinfection that he will be making (store bought) cookies for everyone to show how much he cares and wants to be loved and thought of as a bro. Management announced at the staffinfection that although that staffing levels are 45% reduced and that there were record profits and more work to be completed, No positions would be filled and no overtime would be authorized / approved" . Urban Dictionary @

Suzanne O'Sullivan (May 26 2017) "Untangling the links between biology and behaviour" Brisbane Times @

Colin Drury (17 December 2016) "I am not naturally magnetic': can you learn how to be charismatic?" The Guardian @

Learning Theories website (n.d.) "Confirmation Bias" @

Julian Baggini (15 Feb 2018) "Does the Illuminati control the world? Maybe it’s not such a mad idea - Questioning the hidden power of elites – whether big pharma or secret societies – is really quite sane". The Guardian @

James Adonis (April 21 2017) "This is how easily you're deceived ". Brisbane Times @

Keith Kahn-Harris (August 3 2016) "Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth - From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?" The Guardian @

Ben Tarnoff (25 October 2017) "Empathy – the latest gadget Silicon Valley wants to sell you - The tech world wants us to believe that virtual reality will unlock human understanding on a global scale. But it’s also a business strategy. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has said VR can ‘raise awareness’ by allowing us to see through the eyes of others. But is it more than a marketing ploy?" The Guardian @

Max Nisen, Aimee Groth (August 28, 2012) "27 Psychological Reasons Why Good People Do Bad Things" Business Insider @

Erin Pearson (26 September 2018) "Child among 90 people deradicalised by Victoria's extremist taskforce" Brisbane Times @

Arwa Mahdawi (25 May 2017) "How a neo-Nazi turned Islamist flipped terror narratives upside down - Devon Arthurs is a case study in the way we talk about terrorism, the arbitrary lines that often seem to get drawn between ideology and pathology". The Guardian @

Wikipedia (2018) "Gaslighting - gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity." @

Wikipedia (2018) "Herd behavior" @

Michael E. Price (June 25 2013) "Human Herding: How People are Like Guppies. Following the herd may seem prudent to individuals, but it's risky for society". Psychology Today @

Douglas R. Conant (January 12 2012) "The Power of Idealistic-Realism: How Great Leaders Inspire and Transform". Harvard Business Review @

Bella DePaulo (December 9 2017) "I study liars. I've never seen one like President Trump". The Age @

Matthew Hutson, (April 9, 2018) "Magical Thinking - Even hard-core skeptics can't help but find sympathy in the fabric of the universe—and occasionally try to pull its strings." Psychology Today @

Peter Hartcher (25 August 2018) "Abbot gets Vengeance" Brisbane Times @ 
[Extract: "It resembles the mass hysteria of the compulsive crazed kind of dancing documented by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, a history of the so-called dancing plague at various times over the last millennium. One person would, inexplicably, start convulsively jerking their limbs as if dancing, and it would spread. "For several months, small bands of wild dancers wandered from place to place, spreading the affliction to local people as if by contagion”... Waller writes of an episode in Europe in 1374. “Chroniclers tell of thousands of men and women dancing while screeching with pain, leaping into the air, running madly from place to place and calling on the mercy of God and the saints.” Outbreaks occurred apparently randomly: "In fact, as many as seven bouts of uncontrollable dancing had occurred inn various parts of western Europe prior to 1518." Waller diagnoses it as “a pathological expression of desperation and pious fear." Or, in the contemporary Australian case, partisan and factional fear. I can think of no better metaphor for the madness that seizes Australian’s political leadership, compelling a self-destructive and apparently irresistible convulsion."

Allison Aubrey (February 25, 2019) "Anger Can Be Contagious — Here's How To Stop The Spread". National Public Radio (USA) @

Mariano Sigman · Neuroscientist (2017) "Can the way you speak and write today predict your future mental state, even the onset of psychosis?" TED Talk @

Mariano Sigman · Neuroscientist (2017) "How can groups make good decisions?" TED Talk @

James Purtill (15 March 2019) "Fuelled by a toxic, alt-right echo chamber, Christchurch shooter's views were celebrated online". ABC News @

William Ferraiolo (Oct 1st, 2017) "Collective Karma and Blowback” by Chalmers Johnson. O-Books @  [Book review. [Quote: "Johnson does not argue that Americans deserve to be victimized by blowback, but merely that terrorist attacks are caused, in part, by unenlightened interventionism and aggression of which the public is largely unaware. Aggression directed against American “enemies,” and the socio-economic manipulation of vassal states, must result in undesirable (and sometimes tragic) consequences for American citizens and, ultimately, for U.S. national interests"]

Jesse Singal (May 14, 2014) "How to Win Your Next Political Argument". Science of Us @

Michael Marshall (May 2 2018) "The universe is an egg and the moon isn't real: notes from a Flat Earth conference". The Guardian @

Matthew J Rossano (June 23, 2013) "Behavior over Belief - The Importance of Ritual Behavior apart from Belief Commitments"
Psychology Today @  [Extract: "There were no confirmed atheists among the Andes survivors. But there were varying degrees of belief. Indeed, two of the group’s more significant members were borderline skeptics. One of them was Adolfo “Fito” Strauch, who, over time, had arisen to become of the group’s leaders. He had doubts about a personal God and tended to view rosary recitation as more mental relaxation than supernatural petition. Similarly, Fernando “Nando” Parrado, who along with Roberto Canessa trekked out of the Andes to get help, harbored similar reservations. He had lost his mother, sister, and best friend in the crash – something he found difficult to reconcile with the notion of an all-loving God. Neither, however, let their doubts disqualify them from the ritual. Ritual was bigger than their doubts."]

Matthew J Rossano (March 22, 2014) "Cultus Familiae: The Key to Domestic Harmony? - Family rituals and their connection to social and academic success." Psychology Today @

Matthew J Rossano (Sep 20, 2014) "What Makes a Terrorist? - Ritual, Relationships, and the Greater Good". Psychology Today @

Ginger Gorman (2 February 2019) "Internet trolls are not who I thought — they're even scarier". ABC News @

Amelia Lester (28 April 2018) "Generation Z: politicised by necessity and already changing the world - Raised in an age of uncertainty, with technology as familiar as mother’s milk, post-Millennials are proving potent advocates for change, outstripping the generation before them politically despite only just reaching voting age". Brisbane Times @

Thor May (2015) "How much attention has $529 billion of advertising bought? - Most people encounter several thousand advertisements daily now …" Passionate Skeptic website @  [comment, Thor: this article, which I prepared for a meetup, contains many other relevant links]

Francis, Hanah (January 28, 2015) "Meet Criteo, the company behind some of the ads that stalk you online?". Brisbane Times online @

Miles, Kathleen (1 October 2015) "Ray Kurzweil: Nanobots In Our Brains Will Make Us 'Godlike'. Once we're cyborgs, he says, we'll be funnier, sexier and more loving". [.. how will marketing change when we shortly become different creatures?] Huffington Post online @

Wikipedia (2015) “Advertising”. Wikipedia online @

Karen Middleton (March 23 2019) "After Christchurch - In the places Australian extremists gather online, some of those defending and even celebrating what happened last week in Christchurch mock the widespread disbelief that such a peaceful little city could be chosen for mass murder. In posts, they taunt: Build mosques in a place called Christchurch and what do you expect? ... Across the wider community, though, and especially among Australian Muslims, different questions are being asked. In prioritising Muslim radicalisation, have governments given other extremist threats enough attention? ". The Saturday Paper @

ABC/AP (23 March 2019) "Turkish President replays New Zealand terror attack footage despite visit from Deputy PM .... Turkey's President has played footage of the Christchurch mosque shootings just hours after meeting New Zealand's Foreign Minister and assuring him of the safety of Australians and New Zealanders visiting Gallipoli. ... Recep Tayyip Erdogan received strong international criticism for playing the footage at campaign rallies and for saying Australians and New Zealanders would be sent home in coffins if they came to Turkey with ill-intent towards Islam". ABC News @

Dima Vorobiev, Former Soviet propaganda executive (Mar 10 2019) "What are the most common and effective propaganda techniques? - Ripples. Or, as we in the 21st century call it, “meme propagation”." @  [Thor: recommended]

Carole Cadwalladr (7 May 2017) "The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked - A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign influenced the result of the EU referendum. As Britain heads to the polls again, is our electoral process still fit for purpose?" The Guardian @

Moisés Naím (9 March 2019) "A booming market for charlatans - We have to accept that democracy requires more effort than just casting a vote every few years" El País (Spanish Newspaper) @

Cherie Barnett - Suicide contagion was an issue in Bridgend. There was even a movie exploring the issue!

=> Thor May - Yes, see  . Yes, people under 30 seem prone to many kinds of death wishes (high risk stuff), which feeds into their instinct for mob behaviour. This has fed worldwide military recruitment for millennia. I think that chest beating version might have something weird to do with twisted mating behaviour (a.k.a. "heroism"). On the other hand high suicides among the young in isolated or hopeless environments, like rural Australia and young women left behind in rural Chinese villages (their parents go to work in coastal factories) seem influenced by fashions in how to suicide. The Chinese girls take warfarin based rat poison and bleed to death internally. Huh, old codgers like me spend our days wondering how to live longer.

=> ian beutler - ,, and of course, Thor, I share in your existential concerns, while grieving over the despair of the young, as middle-aged ego-maniacs desolate the Earth with their megalomanic ambitions, while Mother Nature prepares Her lessons for all in Her own Time!! ... fascinating paradoxes,,, the communities that make for fanaticism... the collectives, or tribes, who need their scape-goats to make them feel better... whether they sacrifice goats or children ... human nature does not essentially change it seems.. but does it even evolve?

ABC News (28 March 2019) "Melbourne's Flagstaff station evacuated after busker is mistaken for gunman on train - A commuter has described scenes of mass panic at Melbourne's Flagstaff station, where terrified passengers were in tears and calling relatives to tell them they loved them". ABC News @

Marcus Lyons (December 24, 2016) "Paranormal Perception: What It Is And Why It Matters - Whether the paranormal exists or not, we should nonetheless expect it to be widely and often reported". Paranormal Investigating website @

Wikipedia (2019) "Extrasensory Perception" @  [Thor: mainly an historical account of experimental failure in universities]

Damien Broderick (December 17 2015) ) "The Real Science Behind Paranormal Phenomena". Los Angeles Review of Books @!  [Thor: recommended reading]

David Robson (31 October 2014) "In the 21st Century, why do so many people still believe in the paranormal? David Robson discovers that there’s good reason we hold superstitions – and a few surprising benefits." BBC @

Wikipedia (2019) "Nocebo" @  [ Nocebo = the opposite effect of a placebo]

Brian Resnick (Dec 27, 2017) "The placebo effect has an evil twin that makes you feel pain - A fascinating new study finds patients report worse side effects from placebo when they think it costs more money". Vox Magazine @

Mental Health America (n.d.) "Mental Illness and the Family: Recognizing Warning Signs and How to Cope" MHA @

Steven Reidbord (Dec 13, 2013) "Who Is Mentally Ill? - It's unclear what counts as 'mental illness.'" Psychology Today @

Wikipedia (2019) "Jordan Peterson" @  [Thor, comment: I have included this link neither as a rejection nor acceptance of Peterson's positions (they are plural) but because he embodies as a current example the viral influence that certain intellectuals excite among a part of the population. Each generation has such viral influencers, especially around universities. ]

APS (June 13 2016) "How Collectivism Protects Against Contagious Fear" Association for Psychological Science @  [Thor, comment: This is an American based, questionnaire sourced article. I have strong doubts about its thesis that xenophobia is necessarily more virulent in individualistic societies. Firstly, collectivism, when you study it, is a very complex and variable phenomenon. Secondly, there are lots of collectivist societies where xenophobia is rife, and sometimes deadly (as in the virulently mad chaos of China's Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976)].

Deborah M Gordon (11 December 2018) "An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have". Aeon magazine @

Maggie Koerth-Baker (March 25 2019) "Conspiracy Theories Can’t Be Stopped - And some scientists think we wouldn’t want to even if we could".
FiveThirtyEight website @ 

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


Viral Ideas, Viral Emotions, Psychological & Social Contagion (c) Thor May 2019 return to Ddiscussion