From the award-winning author of A Splendid Exchange, a fascinating new history of financial and religious mass manias over the past five centuries
“We are the apes who tell stories,” writes William Bernstein. “And no matter how misleading the narrative, if it is compelling enough it will nearly always trump the facts.” As Bernstein shows in his eloquent and persuasive new book, The Delusions of Crowds, throughout human history compelling stories have catalyzed the spread of contagious narratives through susceptible groups—with enormous, often disastrous, consequences.
Inspired by Charles Mackay’s 19th-century classic Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Bernstein engages with mass delusion with the same curiosity and passion, but armed with the latest scientific research that explains the biological, evolutionary, and psychosocial roots of human irrationality. Bernstein tells the stories of dramatic religious and financial mania in western society over the last 500 years—from the Anabaptist Madness that afflicted the Low Countries in the 1530s to the dangerous End-Times beliefs that animate ISIS and pervade today’s polarized America; and from the South Sea Bubble to the Enron scandal and dot com bubbles of recent years. Through Bernstein’s supple prose, the participants are as colorful as their motivation, invariably “the desire to improve one’s well-being in this life or the next.”
As revealing about human nature as they are historically significant, Bernstein’s chronicles reveal the huge cost and alarming implications of mass mania: for example, belief in dispensationalist End-Times has over decades profoundly affected U.S. Middle East policy. Bernstein observes that if we can absorb the history and biology of mass delusion, we can recognize it more readily in our own time, and avoid its frequently dire impact.
God, greed, and the yen for conformity reliably override reason, according to this sweeping survey of religious and financial manias. Neurologist and historian Bernstein (A Splendid Exchange) shares vivid accounts of several centuries of sectarian crazies, from the Anabaptists who took over the German city of M nster in 1534, imposing communism and polygamy and executing dissenters, to Branch Davidian messiah David Koresh and the Islamic State. On the finance front, he recaps the South Sea bubble in 18th-century England, the 1990s tech bubble, and other stock market frenzies. Bernstein lucidly deploys neurobiology, behavioral economics, and social psychology to explain why reason fails and other instances, noting, for example, that many people will believe two obviously unequal line segments to be the same length if other people say they are. Unfortunately, his conflation of all irrational doctrine with madness makes him sound somewhat hysterical about even mainstream religious politics: the "dangerous" end-times beliefs of American evangelical conservatives could, he suggests, "incinerate a large portion of humanity" by facilitating nuclear war. The result is an entertaining and insightful analysis of delusional outbursts that occasionally goes too far. Photos.