Delusions

What We Know, What We Don’t?

The crowd awaits the appearance of President Donald Trump in the Minden Airport, Minden, NV on September 12, 2020 - photo: Kelsey Penrose/the Ally

Opinion

Psychiatrists know about delusions. Delusions (and hallucinations) are the hallmarks of schizophrenia and often what brings a person suffering from that disorder to the attention of psychiatrists.

One definition of a delusion is an idiosyncratic fixed and unalterable false belief.   

Delusions come in various shapes and sizes with bizarre components involving suspiciousness, paranoia, and control themes leading the person to believe he/she is being influenced by alien forces such as a government agency (e.g., FBI, CIA, etc.). 

Mental health professionals learn early in their careers that facts and truths are not useful as treatments for delusions.  

Families are often advised to refrain from debating the merits of a delusion or trying to “talk” the afflicted family member out of his/her odd way of thinking since that may only serve to strengthen the delusion. 

Effective treatment for someone afflicted with delusions and hallucinations almost always requires drugs. These agents can reduce or even eliminate delusional thinking, allowing psychotherapy and other social treatments to add additional benefit to the person’s treatment plan.

What About National/Political Delusions?

Are we now afflicted with troublesome national delusions, not based upon mental illness but derived from some other origin? If so, what do we know about the “treatment” of such delusions?

(For purposes of further discussion, the terms delusion and conspiracy theory will be considered interchangeable.)

We’ve had national delusions/conspiracy theories for a long time, mostly of low intensity, such as:

  • John Birch Society/Senator McCarthy communist government infiltration. 
  • The Kennedy assassination.
  • Roswell, New Mexico aliens.
  • Fake moon landing.
  • 9/11 never happened.

Now, we have larger, more troublesome examples:

  • The Big Lie: Our last presidential election was ‘rigged’, involving massive fraud.
  • QAnon:  Democrats kill babies and drink their blood.
  • Anti-Vaccine:  Vaccines change DNA, contain microchips.
Trump Victory Center – Stop the Steal – photo: Dan Keck, cc by 2.0

With schizophrenia, we know the disease has a diffuse genetic component (no single gene is fully responsible). The origin of national delusions, however, is not clear.  

We also know, by now, that national delusions, arising from origins other than mental illness, are equally resistant to facts and truths.

Where Do National Delusions Come From?

The Big Lie is reminiscent of lessons learned from Germany in the 1930s. Authority figures used the technique of repetitious pronouncements of large-scale misinformation. The historical record seems clear that such conduct by authority figures can and did produce false and dangerous beliefs in the public.

Politically influential figures in this country have been repeating The Big Lie for nearly a year. It seems likely that repetition has been successful in creating false beliefs among some of the public.

Anti-vaccine falsehoods have also been repeated by prominent figures at the federal and state levels as well as on cable news shows and talk radio. Repetition continues to be a key element of the strategy.

QAnon seems to have arisen in a more subtle manner via social media and internet proliferation. It promotes a host of conspiracy theories spread widely by its believers and its converts. These theories foster political divisiveness and a general distrust of government and politicians.

Other factors generating delusional beliefs among the public are more difficult to define. 

Social media amplification of odd ideas sent round the world with the click of the mouse, continuous talk radio and cable news programs with significant slants, charismatic leaders playing loose with the facts, and more, all may have contributed in some yet undefined fashion.

Now What?

The Big Question is what do we do to combat dangerous delusions that resist facts and truths: strange beliefs that may threaten our very form of government?

We do know these large-scale national delusions are not the result of a genetically determined mental illness. Free of a genetic anchor, socially derived belief systems may be inherently more flexible with certain interventions. 

Believers are probably not homogenous but with variable levels of attachment and commitment to those beliefs. Perhaps the repeated presentation of facts and truth, over time, will peel off those on the margin who tire of failed predictions (e.g., President Trump was to be reinstated in August, then September, etc.)

The legal system may offer some corrective leverage, particularly with respect to prominent influential persons making false claims who are sued for defamation, may lose a law license, suffer a financial penalty, acquire a felony conviction for interfering with the election process, serve jail time after a plea agreement.

Some arrested for their conduct on January 6th are said to have had epiphany-like awakenings while grinding their way through the legal process with no chance of a presidential pardon or having President Trump pay their legal bills.

Perhaps more persons of influence like Liz Cheney will come forward, demonstrate courage and leadership, and stand up for facts and truth. Repetition of truth and facts by such leaders may have a reverse effect on conspiracy theories over time with some believers.

Sometimes individuals with significant mental illness undergo “burnout.”  Over time, symptoms may persist but lose significant intensity and focus. Whether that will occur with national delusions is yet to be determined.  

Over the long term, though, the nation needs citizens with better quality critical thinking skills. Knowing how to fact check, do research, reserve judgment until more information is acquired, to administer the ‘smell test’ if all else fails, are some of those needed skills.

Where critical thinking skills should be acquired is an open question.  Do parents have that responsibility? Is it up to schools to teach that? Does the news media have a contribution to make by playing it straight with the news, avoiding slants and innuendo?

We know this country is facing serious consequences if troublesome and dangerous national delusions continue without abatement. Our form of government may be threatened in the not-to-distant future.  

We also know we have no current effective means of reversing or neutralizing large-scale false beliefs. We are in the early phases of finding our way. Our efforts must continue to counter and combat such misinformation. We have no choice.

Meanwhile, please place your best suggestions for a ‘fix’ in the nearest suggestion box.


Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here. 


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