Why might the internet turn society psychotic?

How does disagreement lead to madness?

Collision, Division, and Isolation

I have been thinking about a friend’s son that is starting to experience psychotic-like symptoms. We will call this individual Jon. He has become withdrawn, he is paranoid of coworkers at a new job, and he seems to struggle with reading people correctly. These problems can be explained by considering how social threat, fear loops, and ‘dysbeliefs’ interact to produce psychotic problems. The internet is facilitating this process and further atomizing in-real-life communities.

Social Threat

The first thing to consider in this situation is that feeling threatened turns off our empathy somewhat. This may be part of why Jon struggles with reading people correctly. Social threat biases the way we view other people so that they seem to have negative intentions or are hostile. This is often noticeable when you insult someone. They will quickly close up and start disagreeing with much of what you say and find rationalizations against your positions, even if they might usually agree with those ideas. Meanwhile, if people like each other, they will bias in favor of each other’s thinking and be open-minded and receptive to considering different opinions, but also vulnerable to dismissing their critical thought with the ideas of their ingroup.

I suspect that Jon may have initialized his social fear through experiences of being bullied, something that he did in fact face throughout life. There is often a fear loop that stems from being bullied or abused. This becomes important when talking about the internet since it has become normal for people to bully strangers on the internet. Most people in comment sections of certain internet places will feel primed to expect threat, hate, disagreement, uncivility and so on. What’s worse, someone who withdrawals from socializing due to bullies may find their way to the internet to cope, where there are even more bullies.

Much of these social threat patterns are reciprocal. If someone is acting mean online, our first instinct is to turn against them. As we turn against them, others observe us being mean and see it as unjust and then turn against us. It is a collision that exists on both sides.

Fear Loops

This fear that develops from bullying makes socializing very negative and aversive. This makes us want to avoid people. This makes us socially naïve because we must constantly engage in social connection in order to keep up with how people work and how they develop and change. This naivety that one has from a lack of social interaction can make predicting or understanding other people’s behavior harder.

The fear loop is essentially a feedback loop in which fear incentivizes isolation which brews further fear. It resembles the cycle of rejection. If you feel rejected or insulted by someone, your first instinct will be to return the negative attitude. If someone calls you stupid, you will feel threatened and compelled to reject that person with your own insults.

Being isolated can make us even more paranoid because we end up being left out of the constantly evolving cultures that guide most people’s social circles. So if your social group jokes about celebrities, talks about current events, gossips about other friends, or whatever it might be, the isolated person isn’t receiving information from their peers about these topics while they are isolated so their mind will drift away from these common topics and ideas of the social group. Then, often times the group will actually feel threatened by you and you will feel threatened by them. It’s like having the political left and right both meet for coffee. They might get edgy, paranoid, or even insult each other.

People are often times afraid of differences because it challenges their own perspectives. As an example, if you spend time away from your social group who believes that climate change isn’t real, you may encounter information that changes your mind on this topic. When you come back, you will essentially threaten one of the cultural foundations of the social circle and become the heretic.

The fear of differences drives us to divide into safe spaces, echo-chambers, and segregation.

Dysbeliefs

Most of the time someone holds some opinion X, it means that they believe other opinions that contradict opinion X are incorrect. That means that holding opinion X is a threat to any opinion that it contradicts. It means that other people’s contradicting opinions are labeled inferior on some level, otherwise you would have chosen the opinion that you think is superior.

These relatively “inferior” beliefs are what we will call dysbeliefs. This term is relative and doesn’t reflect truths or nontruths. Dysbeliefs are: ideas that one holds that threaten the other group by contradicting their beliefs, threatening or challenging ideas. In some sense, essentially all beliefs are dysbeliefs relative to other beliefs. Consider that, whatever “true reality” is, if we are to form an accurate belief about external reality (if possible), it would be a dysbelief inherently because humans do not have accurate models of external reality.

When one leaves the tribe, they are more likely to encounter and adopt dysbeliefs that contradict the tribe’s consensus belief system and therefore become a threat to the tribe if they return. Isolation breeds the adoption of dysbeliefs because belief conformity is regulated by group exposure, by the pressure of the group’s acceptance or rejection. Owning dysbeliefs leads to isolation and isolation leads to increased rate of dysbelief adoption. There is a dysbelief-isolation loop in this sense.

This effect compounds with time as well. The more time you spend away from the group, the more you’ve drifted away from the “idea economy” that the group has. So the more isolated you are, the more strange your ideas or beliefs can become.

This Is Schizophrenia

This is essentially how I think schizophrenia develops. A person drifts away from normal social bubbles and then if they develop stubborn uncommon beliefs it becomes harder for them to enter back into the normal social circle. The longer they spend in isolation, the more ingrained the uncommon belief can become, the harder it is for the person to simply abandon it. To abandon their idea would be like asking a person to stop following their religion or change their diet overnight or even to drop all of their friends and pickup new strangers as a social circle suddenly. It isn’t that easy. There is an attachment and a lot learning that goes behind the development of people’s belief systems.

As an example, imagine someone leaves to live in North Korea to live for 20 years and they develop a way of life like the locals. This person may return to America and feel very out of place, even alien. If the beliefs that they developed are ones they know others dislike, it can be an even worse problem. This generates paranoia because the threat of ostracization or bullying becomes worse. There has been research that shows political party and social class differences sparks paranoia between individuals (1).

The schizophrenic may temporarily live in the cyber nation of FlatEarth.Org and adopt a dysbelief in flat earth theory while they are absent from their peer culture in high school. This dysbelief is often met with emotional violence, dehumanization, mockery, laughter and general bullying. People who own such a dysbelief are considered crazy, stupid, laughable, and shameful. This begins the fear loop again, in which the person is less motivated to enter the anti-flat earth community (basically everyone) and finds themselves increasingly ingrained in the countercultural ideas.

This is why a lot of people get into the “alt right”. The individual may start off as a social reject in middle school, an incel or some kind of freak. Then, most of the time, the person is met with open arms by the communities of freaks and outsiders. The person adopts the cultural beliefs that propagate the social group and they are left with an attachment to stigmatized dysbeliefs. Then the newborn alt-right member hides from the rest of the world because of the stigma.

Social isolation has been associated to schizophrenic symptoms before. People become more paranoid the less friends they have and the paranoia decreases when social contact is introduced (2). Number of friends was negatively correlated to symptom severity (3). Socializing early in the schizophrenic diagnoses is thought to be crucial to recovery (4). Internet forums have been suggested to help with schizophrenia because of social interaction (5). One survey found that schizophrenics frequently reported having no friends at all, and when asked about this the subjects often reported that they didn’t think this was an issue (6). Loneliness is even genetically associated with schizophrenia (7). Lastly, and most importantly, solitary confinement produces nearly all symptoms of schizophrenia (8, 9, 10). Owning a diverse library of dysbeliefs will often further enhance isolation problems, which may result in schizophrenic tendencies. Too many dysbeliefs may land you in cultural solitary confinement. This is essentially the social defeat hypothesis of schizophrenia (updated to my own liking) (18).

We often view the artists as outcasts and historically, we have a term: the tortured artist, which is due to the meme of the schizophrenic/bipolar artist. Many artists may work endlessly to communicate their outsider or alien perspective through their art.

If you are curious about how other symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations, manifest from this, check out Dynorphin Theory which makes a strong case for the biological and social factors contributing to schizophrenia using research from hundreds of studies. In short, isolation and stress (including physical stress such as illness) are linked to mechanisms associated to hallucinations, specifically the same system that the dysdelic hallucinogen Salvia Divinorum binds to in the brain.

The End of Society

Now society is splitting into fragments and chaos because of the internet. The internet has facilitated the development of dysbeliefs, it has helped people isolate away from their in-real-life contacts, it has aided in the atomization of geographically-bound cultural bubbles, and it has birthed new cultural bubbles. The internet is kind of like taking everyone from all the different countries and just dumping them all together in one neighborhood to discuss their political beliefs. This unsurprisingly leads to conflicts and chaos. The collision of our beliefs and the division this sows through social threat and fear loops is atomizing society and isolating many of us. Some are forming cults through the internet in order to correct these problems, which may reduce symptoms like hallucinations or paranoia. Instead of Columbine, we are seeing ‘school-shooter types’ band together in the masses, perhaps reducing the severity of individual suffering (less individual madness) but enhancing the massive influence on society.

We often talk about echo-chambers as if they are new forces in our lives due to the internet but in reality, echo-chambers have always existed. They were just protected by geographic and sociological boundaries. Country borders, languages, and lifestyle loops have kept people segregated and naïve to the diversity of memes that exist all around us. Now the internet has thrown all of us out of these boundaries and into comment sections where the diversity and corresponding xenophobia has become apparent.

The radical intellectual freedom that the internet provides is facilitating the development of dysbeliefs. This freedom is also allowing us to divide into further echo-chambers

The Left and The Right

Many of those who become alt-right may start off as socially rejected, driven to spend their time in the virtual space as an escape and then funneled into an ideology where one can be accepted. It is essentially a cult, but one that has become widespread enough to influence mainstream politics. 4chan is classically a place for the most socially defeated of thinkers and a supposed birthplace of the alt-right. Consider incels, people who have been associated to the alt-right and they are a kind of ‘sexually-rejected’. Many of them seem to lack friends as well, not just mates.

Everyone in America is growing increasingly threatened by the diversity of antagonistic opinions, especially those organized into the political left and right. Many have been worrying that we are at the face of a new cultural war, a new civil war in the United States. Both the left and the right seem to view the opposition as insane, perhaps as psychotic. This dual pattern is even observed with classic paranoid schizophrenia, where the individual will call normal people ‘sheeple‘ and the normal people will call the conspiracy theorists gullible and dumb, which is essentially what sheeple means. Everyone believes they are Woke or Redpilled. This pattern of reciprocity permeates throughout human social behavior, it seems to be a critical essence.

Conspiracy theories have taken the United States by storm now. Distrust in the media is climaxing and now cultural deviation, radical ideologies, and alternative belief systems are escalating in popularity. These alternative perspectives are very much like schizophrenia, except now everyone is becoming everyone else’s schizophrenic. The mainstream perspectives that are spread through the media are dissolving away and now there is no centralized belief system guiding the people of the United States. Schizophrenia used to be an outlier who didn’t adopt the common mainstream beliefs but it is now very common for people to deviate from the mainstream. And, to reiterate, the way these beliefs are forming cults may prevent the typical schizophrenic manifestations such as hallucinations, which may be a product of isolation, stress and unhealthy living.

The internet has also unveiled the unfairness of society. We see what the rich and the poor are doing. The internet inevitably provokes Marxist values like fairness by popping our cultural bubbles so that we are all aware of each other. This may be why the left has radicalized. Most of the unfairness was behind closed doors in the pre-internet era. This protected all of us, the rich from feeling guilty, the poor from feeling as betrayed as they do now. That isn’t to say awareness was nonexistent before, it’s just that now we have an endless portal into the lives of wealthier people living unfair lives that streams to our pocket devices.

The pandemic lockdowns have even worsened the madness of society by isolating us further. Even before the pandemic, a poll showed that 22% of millennials had ‘no friends’. It is no wonder that society seems to be burning down. Many individuals also already lived in conditions that resemble the lockdowns before the pandemic hit, simply because they lacked friends or the privilege to socialize. These people likely resent those who are suddenly torn apart by the lockdowns because they have been trapped living in that hell due to whatever circumstances led up to their isolation. This mixture on top of the economic crisis may have primed the protests and riots.

Solutions

The way to fix these fear loops that the alt-right and the toxic left are in is to actually allow openness and make the environment non-threatening. In some sense, we might wonder if the way the left is attacking the alt right is actually promoting the problem through threat responses. This behavior could be morally equivalent or similar to being alt-right. Assuming that alt-right is very bad, one may be promoting it’s power by stigmatizing it and allowing it to fester into the cesspool it is.

We must let our guards down.

The difficult and real solution to this is to experimentally interact with people despite being afraid that it will hurt or that people might hurt you and to maintain open mindedness about other people. One must consciously negate their threat-induced biases and expectations in order to grow out of the fear loop. If you are around people who are not harmful or scary, then you grow comfortable and eventually socializing becomes rewarding once both people have let their guards down. Reducing other people’s social threat is extremely important if we wish to have productive conversations and political discourse.

Social behavior is reciprocal.

Refrain from retaliating against offensive people. Pay attention to word choices. Avoid even slight passive aggressiveness. Do not fuel the feedback loops that maintain the accelerating destruction of our society. This is your responsibility too. Speak peacefully, clearly, and calmly. The other side will reciprocate if you are able to develop trust.

Both prosocial and antisocial behaviors are reciprocal. Consider that we are mean to ‘evil’ people. We throw them in jail and try to punish them, in ways that are arguable torture. People are like mirrors and will mimic your tone. The main problem is that you will also mimic other people’s tone and other strangers may be primed to act defensive and antagonistic. They may initiate the aggression and you will feel the urge to treat them with reciprocal aggression. You should not do this. It is irrational to reciprocate, even if you feel it is justified. The idea of justification is pointless in solving this problem.

Read The Arbiter of Truth to better understand how these reciprocal problems can manifest in very subtle and unnoticed ways. They may even draw out popularity because the strategies are so incredibly effective at captivating people.

Maintain both openness and critical thought at all times. These two don’t have to contradict each other. Be critical when new information contradicts what you believe, but be open to the possibility that that the opposition has a point. Try to see that point and acknowledge it. This helps people let their own guard down. Do not empathize with the opposition for the purposes of manipulation though, this is readily detectable by people.

Woke and Redpill are both very narcissistic terms that seem to imply enlightenment. That doesn’t mean everyone who uses the terms is invoking such a narcissism, but it is interesting to consider that such grandiose terms are used on opposite sides of the political spectrum. It is another reciprocal pattern, a duality. Everyone is wrong about the way they view the world in some ways, often times very many ways. We are not enlightened and this isn’t news (for most of us)! So it is important that we stop behaving as if we are. We must all accept that we might be wrong about even the most absurd things, such as the earth being round, if we wish to facilitate the very dialogue that allows for better ideas to evolve. The transfer of ideas is important for cultural evolution and now we need it more than ever, or else people will die in an actual war.

Madness is relative; your enemy isn’t necessarily crazy for disagreeing with you. Though, some ideas may be better than others and we ought to find out which ideas those are, in a peaceful way.

Here is some literature related to this topic you might find useful:

Social rejection is found to impair cognition and decision-making.

Social rejection can cause one to become aggressive, even towards groups.

Social exclusion leads to unintentional self-defeating behavior.

Social exclusion leads to problems of self-regulation.

Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior.

A cycle of revenge, explaining a cycle of antisocial behavior.

. . .

Special thanks to the seven patrons: Sarah Gehrke, Melissa Bradley, Morgan Catha, Niklas Kokkola, Abhishaike Mahajan, Riley Fitzpatrick, and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist! I’d also like to thank Annie Vu, Chris Byrd, and Kettner Griswold for your kindness and making these projects and the podcast possible through your donations.

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Citations

1. Saalfeld, V., Ramadan, Z., Bell, V., & Raihani, N. J. (2018). Experimentally induced social threat increases paranoid thinkingRoyal Society open science5(8), 180569.

2. Lamster, F., Nittel, C., Rief, W., Mehl, S., & Lincoln, T. (2017). The impact of loneliness on paranoia: An experimental approachJournal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry54, 51-57.

3. Giacco, D., McCabe, R., Kallert, T., Hansson, L., Fiorillo, A., & Priebe, S. (2012). Friends and symptom dimensions in patients with psychosis: a pooled analysisPLoS One7(11), e50119.

4. Bjornestad, J., ten Velden Hegelstad, W., Joa, I., Davidson, L., Larsen, T. K., Melle, I., … & Bronnick, K. (2017). “With a little help from my friends” social predictors of clinical recovery in first-episode psychosisPsychiatry Research255, 209-214.

5. Haker, H., Lauber, C., & Rössler, W. (2005). Internet forums: a self‐help approach for individuals with schizophrenia?Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica112(6), 474-477.

6. Harley, E. W. Y., Boardman, J., & Craig, T. (2012). Friendship in people with schizophrenia: a surveySocial psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology47(8), 1291-1299.

7. Gao, J., Davis, L. K., Hart, A. B., Sanchez-Roige, S., Han, L., Cacioppo, J. T., & Palmer, A. A. (2017). Genome-wide association study of loneliness demonstrates a role for common variationNeuropsychopharmacology42(4), 811-821.

8. Grassian, S. (1983). Psychopathological effects of solitary confinementAmerican Journal of Psychiatry140(11), 1450-1454.

9. Grassian, S. (2006). Psychiatric effects of solitary confinementWash. UJL & Pol’y22, 325.

10. Grassian, S., & Friedman, N. (1986). Effects of sensory deprivation in psychiatric seclusion and solitary confinementInternational journal of law and psychiatry8(1), 49-65.

11. Baumeister, R. F., & DeWall, C. N. (2005). The inner dimension of social exclusion: Intelligent thought and self-regulation among rejected personsThe social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying, 53-73.

12. Gaertner, L., Iuzzini, J., & O’Mara, E. M. (2008). When rejection by one fosters aggression against many: Multiple-victim aggression as a consequence of social rejection and perceived groupnessJournal of experimental social psychology44(4), 958-970.

13. Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Social exclusion causes self-defeating behaviorJournal of personality and social psychology83(3), 606.

14. Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. J., & Twenge, J. M. (2005). Social exclusion impairs self-regulationJournal of personality and social psychology88(4), 589.

15. Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Ciarocco, N. J., & Bartels, J. M. (2007). Social exclusion decreases prosocial behaviorJournal of personality and social psychology92(1), 56.

16. Stillwell, A. M., Baumeister, R. F., & Del Priore, R. E. (2008). We’re all victims here: Toward a psychology of revengeBasic and Applied Social Psychology30(3), 253-263.

17. Hamdan-Mansour, A. M., Arabiat, D. H., Sato, T., Obaid, B., & Imoto, A. (2011). Marital abuse and psychological well-being among women in the southern region of JordanJournal of Transcultural Nursing22(3), 265-273.

18. Selten, J. P., van der Ven, E., Rutten, B. P., & Cantor-Graae, E. (2013). The social defeat hypothesis of schizophrenia: an updateSchizophrenia bulletin39(6), 1180-1186.

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