Epistemic Status: Loose but mostly serious
One of the things that’s on my mind a lot is the psychology of Nazis. Not neo-Nazis, but the literal Nazi party in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. In particular, Adolf Hitler. What was it like inside his head? What could make a person into Hitler?
When I read Mein Kampf, I was warned by my more historically-minded friends that it wasn’t a great way to learn about Nazism. Hitler, after all, was a master manipulator. His famous work of propaganda would obviously paint him in an unrealistically favorable light.
The actual impressions I got from Mein Kampf, though, were very similar to the psychological profile of Hitler compiled by the OSS, (h/t Alice Monday) the US’s intelligence service during WWII and the predecessor of the CIA.
Here’s what Hitler was like, as presented by the OSS:
- Lazy by default, only able to be active when agitated
- Totally uninterested in details, facts, sitting down to work, “dull” things
- Dislikes and fears logic, prefers intuition
- Keen understanding of human psychology, especially “baser” urges
- Very sensitive to the “vibe” of the room, the emotional arc of the crowd
- Strong aesthetic sense and interest in the visual and theatrical
- Highly sentimental, kind to dogs and children, accepting of personal foibles
- Views human interaction through the lens of seduction and sadomasochism
- Eager to submit as well as to dominate, but puzzled or disgusted by anything which is neither submission nor domination
- Sensitive to slights, delighted by praise, obsessed with superficial marks of rank & respect
- Fixated on personal loyalty
- Suicidal (and frequently threatened suicide long before he actually did it)
This is all very Cluster B, though the terminology for personality disorders didn’t exist at the time and I’m obviously not in a position to make a diagnosis. Hitler’s tantrums, impulsiveness, inability to have lasting relationships, constant seeking of approval and need to be at the center of attention, grandiosity, envy, and lack of concern for moral boundaries, are all standard DSM symptoms of personality disorders.
In his own words, Hitler was very opposed to rule of law and intellectual principles: “The spectacled theorist would have given his life for his doctrine rather than for his people.” He disapproved of intellectuals and of logical thinking, had contempt for “Manchester liberalism” (classical liberalism) and commerce, and instead praised the spiritual transfiguration that masses of people could attain through patriotism and self-sacrifice.
He said, “A new age of magic interpretation of the world is coming, of interpretation in terms of the will and not of the intelligence. There is no such thing as truth either in the moral or the scientific sense.”
He believed strongly in the need for propaganda, and repeatedly explained the principles for designing it:
- it must be simple and easy to understand by the uneducated
- it must be one-sided and present us as absolutely good and the enemy as absolutely bad
- it must have constant repetition
- it should NOT be designed to appeal to intellectuals or aesthetes
- it should focus on feelings not objectivity
He believed in the need of the people for “faith”, not because he was a believing Christian, but because he thought it was psychologically necessary:
“And yet this human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief. The great masses of a nation are not composed of philosophers. For the masses of the people, especially faith is absolutely the only basis of a moral outlook on life. The various substitutes that have been offered have not shown any results that might warrant us in thinking that they might usefully replace the existing denominations. But if religious teaching and religious faith were once accepted by the broad masses as active forces in their lives, then the absolute authority of the doctrines of faith would be the foundation of all practical effort. There may be a few hundreds of thousands of superior men who can live wisely and intelligently without depending on the general standards that prevail in everyday life, but the millions of others cannot do so. Now the place which general custom fills in everyday life corresponds to that of general laws in the State and dogma in religion. The purely spiritual idea is of itself a changeable thing that may be subjected to endless interpretations. It is only through dogma that it is given a precise and concrete form without which it could not become a living faith.”
In other words, the picture that is emerging is that Hitler himself craved, and understood other people’s craving, for a certain kind of emotionally resonant experience. Religious or mystical faith; absorption in the crowd; mass enthusiasm; sacrifice of self; and sacrifice of the outsider or scapegoat. Importantly, truth doesn’t matter for this experience, and critical thinking must be absolutely suppressed in order to fully enact the ritual.
I’m pretty confident, despite not having much knowledge of history, that this was a real and central part of Hitler’s ideology and practice.
If you watch Triumph of the Will, it’s very clearly a mass ritual calculated to produce strong emotional responses from the crowd.
In particular, the emotion it evokes is certainty. The crowd looks to their leader for validation and assurance; and with great confidence, he gives it to them, assuring the German people eternal glory. One can safely lay down one’s burden of worry and anxious thought. One can be at peace, knowing that one has Hitler’s love and approval. One can rest in the faith that Hitler will take care of things.
Repetitive call-and-response rituals, endless ranks of soldiers, flags and logos and symbols, huge crowds, rhythmic beats, all give a sense of a simple, steady, loud, bold message. It is cognitively easy. There is no need to strain to hear or understand. It will be the same, over and over again, forever.
What the OSS report suggests, which Nazi propaganda would never admit, is that Hitler himself craved external validation, and was distraught when it was not supplied. He understood how badly the people wanted to be led and to be annihilated in the worship of a ruler, because he longed for that submission and release himself.
There is nothing particularly unusual about what I’m saying; the standard accounts of Nazism always make mention of the quasi-religious fanaticism it engendered. And the connection to ritual is obvious: mass events, loss of individuality in the collective frenzy, the heightening of tension and its release, often through violence. This is the pattern of all sacrificial festivals.
You can see a modern reconstruction of the primitive sacrificial festival in the Rite of Spring (here, with Nijinsky’s choreography and Roerich’s set design, which captures the atavistic character of the original ballet in a way later productions don’t).
You can also see a version of this in the coronation scene from Boris Godunov, which is a very beautiful expression of quasi-religious mass worship for a state leader.
There’s an important connection between drama, the drive for emotional validation and stirring up interpersonal conflict, and drama, acting out a play to produce a sense of catharsis in the audience, originally as part of a religious ritual involving both sacrifice and collective frenzy.
Both drama in the colloquial sense and the artistic sense are about evoking emotions and provoking sympathies. Drama requires an emotional arc, in which tension rises, comes to a head, and is released (catharsis).
Why is this satisfying? Why do we like to lose our minds, to go up into an irrational frenzy, and then to come down again, often through sorrow and sympathetic suffering?
Current psychological opinion holds that catharsis doesn’t work; venting anger makes people angrier and more violent, not less so. This isn’t a new idea; Plato thought that encouraging violent passions through theater would only make them worse.
It’s possible that the purpose of drama isn’t to help people cool down, but quite the opposite: to provide plausibly-deniable occasions for mob violence, and to bind the group closer together by sharing strong emotional connections. Emotional mirroring helps groups coordinate better, including for war or hunting. Highly rhythmic activities (like music, dance, and chanting) both promote emotional mirroring and make it easy to detect those individuals who are out of step or disharmonious.
(In the original Nijinsky choreography of the Rite of Spring, the girl who is chosen to be a human sacrifice is chosen by lot, through a “musical-chairs”-style game in which the one caught out of the circle is singled out. In both Greek and Biblical tradition, sacrifices were chosen by lot. “Random” choice of a victim is often an excellent, plausibly-deniable way to promote subconscious choice.)
Ben Hoffman’s concept of empathy as herd cognition is similar, though humans are more like pack predators than true herd animals. Emotions are shared directly, through empathy, through song and dance and nonverbal vibrations. This is a low-bandwidth channel and can’t convey complex chained plans ahead of time. You can’t communicate “if-then” statements directly through emotional mirroring. But you can communicate a lot about friend and foe, and guide quite complex behaviors through “warmer, colder, warmer”-style reinforcement learning.
It’s a channel of communication that’s optimized to be intelligible only to the people who are in harmony at the moment — that is, those who are feeling the same thing, are part of the group, are acting in roughly the same way. This has some disadvantages. For one thing, it’s hard to use it to coordinate division of labor. You need more explicit reasoning to, for instance, organize your army into a pincer movement, as Shaka Zulu did. Emotion-mirroring motivates people to “act as one”, not to separate into parts. For another thing, emotion-mirroring doesn’t allow for fruitful disagreement or idea-generation, because that’s inherently disharmonious, no matter how friendly in intent or effect; suggesting a different idea is differing from the group.
The advantage of emotional-mirroring as a form of communication is precisely that it is only intelligible to people who are engaging in the mirroring. If you are coordinating against the people who are out of sync or out of harmony, you can be secretive in plain view, simply by communicating through a rhythm that they can’t quite detect.
It makes sense, in a sort of selfish-gene way. A gene which caused individuals to become very good at coordinating with others who had the gene, to kill those who didn’t have the gene, would promote natural selection for itself. It would make it feel good to harmonize and “become one with” the crowd, and elevate rage to a fever pitch against those who would interrupt the harmony. Those who didn’t have the gene would be worse at seeing the mob coming, and would not be able to secretly coordinate with each other.
(This idea is not due to me, but to a friend who might prefer to remain anonymous.)
Only a small portion of the population can be antisocial in the long run, where antisocial means impulsive aggression, in the sense of “people who are more likely to drive at the oncoming car in the game of Chicken”; evolutionary game theory simulations bear that out. Aggressive or risk-seeking behavior can only be a minority trait, because while it does result in more sexual success and more short-term wins in adversarial games, people with those traits have too high a risk of dying out. But the more sensitive, harmony-coordination-mob trait, might be better at surviving, because it’s usually quiescent and only initiates violence when there’s a critical mass of people moving in unison.
There also may be the “charismatic” or “Dionysian” or “actor/performer/poet/bard” trait: the ability of an individual to activate people’s harmony-sensing, emotional-mirroring moods, the ability to make people get up and dance or cheer or fight. People with borderline personality disorder sometimes are better than neurotypicals at reading emotions and inferring people’s feelings and intentions in social situations. Hyper-sensitive, hyper-expressive people may also be a stable minority strategy; minority, because getting people worked up increases risk, though not as much as unilaterally seeking conflict oneself.
High drama is, obviously, dangerous. It is also powerful and at times beautiful. Even those of us who would never be Nazis can be moved by art and music and theater and religious ritual. It’s a profound part of the human psyche. It’s just important to be aware of how it works.
Drama is inherently transient and immediate. It’s like a spell; it affects those within range, while the spell is being sustained, and dissipates when the spell is broken. If you want to enhance drama, you create an altered environment, separate from everyday life, and aim for repetition, unanimity, and cohesiveness. You rev people up with enthusiasm. You say “Yes, and…”, as in improv. If you want to dispel drama, you break up the scene with interruptions, disagreements, references to mundane details, collages of discordant elements. You deescalate emotions by becoming calm and boring. You impede the momentum.
If you have a plan that you’re afraid will fail unless everyone stays rev’ed up 24/7 and unanimously enthusiastic, you have a plan that’s being communicated through drama, and you need to beware that drama’s nature is typically transient, irrational, and violent.
Denotative language, as opposed to enactive language, is literally opposed to role-playing. When you say out loud what is going on — not to cause anyone to do anything, but literally just to inform them what is going on — you are “breaking character.”
If I am playing the role of a sad person, it’s breaking character to say “I’d probably feel better if I took a nap.” That’s not expressing sadness! That’s not what a Sad Person would say! It’s not acting out the arc of “inconsolableness” to its inevitable conclusion. It’s cutting corners. Cheating, almost. Breaking momentum.
By alluding to the reality beyond the current improv scene, the scaffolding of facts and interests that lasts even after passions have cooled, I am ruining the scene and ceding my power to shape it, but potentially gaining a qualitatively different kind of power.
Breaking flow is inherently frustrating, because we humans probably have a desire for flow for its own sake. Drama wants drama. Flow wants flow.
But ultimately, there’s a survival imperative that limits all of these complex adaptations. You have to be alive in order to act out a drama. The “scaffolding” facts of practical reality remain, even if they’re mostly far away when you’re well-insulated from danger. Drama provides a relative, but not an absolute, survival advantage, which means it’s more-or-less a parasitic phenomenon, and has natural limitations on how much behavior it can co-opt before negative consequences start showing up.