The Psychology of Totalitarianism

Mattias Desmet

The Psychology of Totalitarianism



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In his book, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, author and world-renowned Professor of Clinical Psychology Mattias Desmet describes a society led by technocrats and pundits who control the masses through an incomplete but well-crafted narrative. The world is in the grips of “mass- formation”, meaning a dangerous, collective type of hypnosis, as we bear witness to loneliness, free-falling anxiety, and fear, giving way to censorship, loss of privacy, and surrendered freedoms. It is all spurred on by a singular, focused crisis narrative that relies on a destructive group consensus. Desmet eloquently deconstructs the societal conditions that systematically silence dissonant voices in order to promote a single minded collective psychosis.

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Analysis and key concepts


Humans have reaped enormous benefits from advances in science and technology, but these developments have also made us fragile and more isolated


Trust in a society that relies almost exclusively on data and statistics is misplaced, because even numbers can be biassed


In modern totalitarianism, the world is led by people who focus on data, and who are slowly eroding individual rights


Totalitarianism finds fertile ground in a disorientated, angry population


The story told by an authoritarian regime selectively omits important aspects of the truth, but it is convincing and attractive to the masses


Totalitarian leaders are not monsters, their intentions are good


A totalitarian regime needs to create an enemy at which the population can direct its anger




Take-home message

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Many useful tips to:

  • Understand that governments often play on people’s emotions to assert and maintain authority.
  • Take a closer look at the psychological methods that drive us to adhere to a given belief system.
  • Open our eyes to the fact that totalitarianism is not as distant a possibility as we might like to think.

Mattias Desmet is a professor of psychology at the University of Ghent, Belgium. Desmet focuses on the mechanisms that regulate the re-education of the masses. He has published several articles in specialised journals on this topic, and is one of the founders of the Single Case Archive, a database that collects and catalogues studies related to psychotherapy.

Publishing house:

Chelsea Green Pub Co