Delusion. Most of us, when considering delusion, think primarily of delusions of grandeur. I don’t know if that’s the most common type, but movies and the news are full of people who likely carry delusions of grandeur. Think Lindsay Lohan or Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.
Delusion comes in many more guises, though, and I’m quite sure you’d recognize most of them.
A fellow named Karl Jaspers was the first to define delusion, many, many moons ago.
- certainty (held with absolute conviction)
incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
In layman’s terms, or the plain English of wikipedia, a delusion
a fixed belief that is either false, fanciful, or derived from deception. Psychiatry defines the term more specifically as a belief that is pathological (the result of an illness or illness process). As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, dogma, stupidity, apperception, illusion, or other effects of perception.
Some of the types of delusion, according to that great online dictionary in the intertubez, include
Nihilistic delusion: A delusion whose theme centres on the nonexistence of self or parts of self, others, or the world. A person with this type of delusion may have the false belief that the world is ending.
Delusion of reference: The person falsely believes that insignificant remarks, events, or objects in one’s environment have personal meaning or significance. For instance, a person may believe they are receiving special messages from newspaper headlines.
Persecutory delusion: These are the most common type of delusions and involve the theme of being followed, harassed, cheated, poisoned or drugged, conspired against, spied on, attacked, or obstructed in the pursuit of goals. Sometimes the delusion is isolated and fragmented (such as the false belief that co-workers are harassing), but sometimes are well-organized belief systems involving a complex set of delusions (“systematized delusions”). People with a set of persecutory delusions may believe, for example, they are being followed by government organizations because the “persecuted” person has been falsely identified as a spy. These systems of beliefs can be so broad and complex that they can explain everything that happens to the person.
and of course the ever-popular
Religious delusion: Any delusion with a religious or spiritual content. These may be combined with other delusions, such as grandiose delusions (the belief that the affected person is God, or chosen to act as a God, for example).
A delusion may be classified as bizarre or non-bizarre, and it may involve extremes of emotions such as anger or depression.
And of course, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has its own definition.
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.
But what happens when an entire subculture is in the thralls of a delusion or three or four?
Mass delusions. Mass hysteria. Most commonly this manifests as a group psychogenic illness, or, bizarrely, something more akin to the Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg, France, when over the course of a month, hundreds of people danced themselves to death by heart attack, stroke or exhaustion. Some believe the Salem witch trials of the 17th century may have been stoked by mass hysteria as well.
And history is filled with cultures that ignored the clear and ominous warning signs of their own destruction until it was far too late, thinking, as many teenagers do, that nothing could possibly happen to them.
I don’t know what was going on in Strasbourg in 1518, but I’ll bet it was a scary time for its people. That’s the origin of most mass delusions — fear. And that’s where we are these days, too — a time of great change, on many different levels — and, quite frankly, change is one of the most frightening things we face, for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s coming.
Now, here’s the thing about delusional people, be they in groups or singly: Facts mean nothing to them. Your persuasive and passionately held arguments, not to mention your utter disbelief that the delusional can hold to such obvious falsehoods, will not move them one iota and, in fact, will likely only strengthen the delusion.
Their argument, of course, will be that you are the delusional one because you can’t see what’s so obvious to them.
That’s how it is with cognitive dissonance. Think about it. If you’ve believed something all your life — say, that the earth is flat — no amount of facts, like pictures from space, could change your mind, especially if you associate with like-minded people. To change your mind would mean admitting you were wrong, and that’s just way too difficult for an awful lot of people. And besides, all those pictures were faked.
The only solution is to peel back the delusion one step at a time, the way it formed in the first place. And that’s not a quick process, leaving us in much the same place as all those historical cultures who failed to heed the truth in time to save themselves.
It’s no wonder we want to scream and shout, grab those delusional souls by the shoulders and shaken some sense into them.
But it won’t work.
The only thing that will is a calm, centered approach, a patience that speaks of the endless time we don’t have and our own certainty that a spoiled Gulf of Mexico is a disaster is not a delusion, that tax breaks for the rich never help anyone but the rich, that educating our children is the best and only way to ensure our culture’s longevity.
And that each and every human being deserves the same rights, regardless of the color of their skin, whom they choose to love or whether or how they choose to believe.
But as the people of Strasbourg and Salem learned, mass delusion is a killer, and if the rest of us have learned anything from the long history of this earth, it’s that delusions must be neutralized or we must start again.