A virus is an infectious agent that replicates in the living cell of the host organism. In a way, the virus depends on the organism it infects to survive, multiply and spread. Ideas can replicate that pattern.
An idea can be understood as a small cell of meaning and content that lives and propagates in the shared intellectual and cultural space of society. The idea itself would be nothing without the people who originate, share and spread it.
Regardless of the form the idea takes, its idiosyncratic representation, or the channels for sharing it, it is a unit of thought that carries meaning. To survive, that idea must also be kept active in mind and, if possible, spread and permeate other minds. In fact, ideas inhabit that shared universe made up of the minds of people and the collective conscience.
However, Jung believed that if we are not fully aware of what motivates our behaviors, beliefs, and decisions, we can easily become possessed by alien ideas, which end up rooting in a psychic reality that we have not fathomed. In practice, when we don’t question our thinking, it is likely that fashionable ideas end up settling in our minds, taking up space and, ultimately, influencing our lives.
The epidemiology of ideas in the human mind
We all consider ourselves rational beings. Not only do we come up with ideas, but we can use our logical faculties to evaluate their plausibility or usefulness in order to choose the best ideas and discard the bad ones. But that’s not always what happens.
In practice, bad ideas often survive and wield great power over the masses. These ideas appeal to our shadows, inducing mass deliriums, generating hatred, or even leading to genocide. In fact, behind every war there is always an idea to be defended that cannot be questioned, an idea with which the masses have identified and made their own. Without thinking. Without questioning. Without judging.
In his “Red Book” Jung wrote: “In my case, the thought was too much and I began to exaggerate the crazy ideas. They are dangerous since I am a man, and you know how accustomed men are to assuming thoughts as their own, so that they eventually mistake them for themselves.”
Jung explained that many times we accept the ideas that resonate with our belief system and then we begin to see them as our own. We assume them. We identify with them. And we include them in our identity, so we end up seeing an attack on those ideas as an attack on ourselves.
However, if we do not submit these ideas to a critical judgment, if we do not pass them through the sieve of logical thinking, we do not possess those ideas, rather these ideas possess us. In fact, Jung believed that “Those ideas possess and encompass you”, in such a way that sometimes they do not even leave room for our authentic “self” and we become an automata whose reasoning capacity has been taken away.
Jung also considered that ideas “Go beyond you, existing in themselves.” When ideas are socialized, they can take on a life of their own, developing different meanings that each person only knows superficially. Ideas have multiple layers of meaning and we don’t always manage to understand them all.
In fact, ideas often sneak into our minds surreptitiously, appealing to basic emotions and silencing reason. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, investigated how sensitivity to disgust influences our moral judgment and concluded that Nazi ideology actively appealed to some of the older disgust and cleanliness parts of our brains in order to achieve a terrifying power on the masses.
When Nazi propaganda compared the Jews to parasites that spoiled the purity of the Volkslörper (the body of the German people), it leveraged the idea of the purity of the Aryan race by activating those areas of the brain evolutionarily designed to protect us from germs.
For that reason, it is not surprising that in his correspondence Hitler frequently used metaphors derived from cleanliness to refer to the Jews. The most dangerous ideologies, those that come to take over the minds of the people and infect the masses, are precisely so powerful because they tend to activate the vulnerabilities of our most primitive and irrational brain.
Of course, there are also many other ideas that have changed the course of history and the way we see the world – for better or worse – like those that came from great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Copernicus and Newton, Darwin or Marx and Engels. Over time, some contagious ideas have led to good results. Others have been terrible.
How to protect ourselves from contagious ideas?
There are many ideas floating around us, especially in the information age, when any ideology – even the most insane ones – is just a click away. Therefore, it is essential to avoid contagion. We need to reflect on ideas before making them our own and incorporating them into our identity.
And it is not simply a question of distinguishing between good and bad ideas, but of beginning to see all the chiaroscuro that they contain. It is about beginning to glimpse the power they can exert in our lives and the way they influence our decisions. Ideas are not innocuous, although they sometimes seem so. They can change the way we perceive the world, the way we relate to each other, and even the way we see ourselves.
To protect ourselves from the most contagious ideas, it’s worth looking at their epidemiology, trying to figure out why they have the power to spread so easily. As a general rule, the simplest and most reductionist ideas are the most contagious. They are also more dangerous because by contemplating only a part of reality, they lead to biased positions.
Following the trail of an idea to see how it has mutated to convince us is also a strategy to protect yourself from its influence. As well as trying to understand what values, deep-rooted beliefs or emotions are used to seduce us. Many ideas are actually empty slogans that are repeated ad nauseam to be implanted in the collective consciousness.
With these tools we will be able to build a rationality shell to prevent the ideas of others from ending up possessing us and dictating our lives. However, perhaps the most effective shield against other people’s ideas is simply to think. After all, when we are not capable of generating our own ideas, arguing and perfecting them, we become the ideal container where others will pour their ideas.
Haidt, J. & Joseph, C. (2004) Intuitive Ethics: How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues. Daedalus; 133(4): 55-66.
Jung, C. (2012) El libro rojo. Buenos Aires: El hilo de Ariadna.