Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Folie en masse! It’s so tempting to drink the Kool-Aid

Henry A. Nasrallah, MD


Psychiatrists occasionally encounter a case of folie à deux, where 2 persons share the same false belief. Paradoxically, it is more common for a large number of people to share a false belief (folie en masse) and uphold it as fact because the idea appears enticingly valid as an “explanation” for a problem or event.

“Conspiracy theories” abound in our society and yet conspiracy theory advocates would express shock and disdain at the infamous event when 918 followers of Jim Jones drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid because they believed their leader’s irrational ideas. Apart from recognizable cults—some of whom claim to have their own “solutions” for mental illness—many ordinary people uphold beliefs that are not supported by evidence but widely “accepted” as true:

Persons with psychosis are dangerous. This incorrect belief was prevalent before the tragic events at Virginia Tech and Tucson, AZ (remember the “Son of Sam” in New York?) and was reinforced by them. Clinicians know that, similar to the general population, only a small proportion of persons suffering from a psychotic illness exhibit violent behavior. In fact, their illness renders them more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime.

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