August 30, 2007

Delusional Social Networkers

No, this is not another rant about people who hallucinate power laws; this is about social networks which are constituted by sharing the same (or, rather, similar) delusional beliefs:

Vaughan Bell, C. Maiden, A. Munoz-Solomando and V. Reddy, "'Mind control experiences' on the internet: Implications for the psychiatric diagnosis of delusions", Psychopathology 39 (2006): 87--91 [pdf]
Background: The DSM criteria for a delusion indicate that it should not include any beliefs held by a person's 'culture or subculture'. The internet has many examples of people reporting 'mind control experiences' (MCEs) on self-published web pages, many of which suggest a community based around such beliefs and experiences. It was hypothesised that some of these reports are likely to reflect delusional beliefs and the hyperlinks between web reports were likely to show evidence of social structure, demonstrating the 'culture or subculture' exemption to be increasingly redundant in light of new technology.
Sampling and Methods: Texts from web sites reporting MCEs (n = 10), experience of cancer (n = 10), depression (n = 10) and being stalked (n = 10) were identified, and were blind-rated by three independent psychiatrists for the presence of delusions. Hyperlinks from web sites reporting MCEs were used to create a network structure; this was compared with a size-matched, randomly generated network and known social networks from the literature using social network analysis.
Conclusions: The sampled web-published accounts of MCEs are highly likely to be influenced by delusional beliefs. Social network analysis suggests there is significant evidence of an online community based around these beliefs. The fact that individuals can form a community based on the content of a potentially delusional belief present a paradox for the DSM diagnostic criteria for a delusion, and suggests the need to revise and revisit the original operational definition in the light of these new technological developments.

The abstract doesn't leave very much for me to say about this. The initial sample of web-pages were presented to psychiatrists who didn't know about the larger purpose of the study, without identifying information, in standardized format, etc., and the mind-control pages were very clearly and easily distinguished from the others as delusional. Having established that, Bell et al. then did snow-ball sampling to gather a network of pages, starting from the ones on mind control, and compared three aspects of that network (average distance, clustering coefficient, and degree centralization) to three controls: three of the classic small-scale social networks, and one randomized network of the same size and link-density as their mind-control network. The latter looked rather more like the real social networks than the random control. Conclusion: these people are, in fact, organizing themselves around their shared delusional beliefs. (This is not a surprise to anyone who has looked at these sites, or even read reasonable newspaper articles.) Absent a really good way to argue that this is not a sub-culture, which is not forthcoming, it follows that, under the DSM criteria, these are no longer delusions.

(Technically, an Erdos-Renyi network makes a poor control, because it's just so different from anything people put together either online or in the realized world. I would be happier if they had used randomized networks with matched degree distributions. Even better would have been to pick ten random, unrelated websites and do snowball sampling from them, and use that as the control. While this would be nicer, I doubt it would change the result.)

I've long been interested in fringe beliefs and how people use stories to sustain communities, so this is really interesting to me. If someone somehow acquires a very rare belief, very far from the mainstream of their neighbors, back in the old days there were fairly few circumstances under which they could express it and develop it without being shot down and/or put away. It was pretty hard to find a social space which would shelter such thought. This is one reason religious innovations often (but, of course, not always) come from socially marginal and/or isolated settings, where it has been easier to get away with saying wild things and get a critical mass of like-minded people together. With the combination of cheap, anonymous electronic communications and decent search engines, this is changed drastically: the holders of very rare beliefs can find like-minded partners, and create social spaces where those beliefs can be cultivated. (Thus, they do not have to find social spaces which are generally accepting of arbitrary unconventional thoughts or acts.) Not surprisingly, then, the stories these people tell about their experiences with mind control are much more similar to each other than are the delusions of control expressed by lone psychotics. So the same principles which make the Internet a haven for every conceivable fetish, even those which are (literally) exponentially unlikely, also contribute to the social elaboration of heresies and delusions. Mind-control fetishists even prove that the intersection of these sets is non-empty. (Go ahead, the link's just to Salon.)

Of course, we have long had social networks where membership depends on commitment to certain rather rare beliefs, and which revolve around the cultivation of those beliefs and making them even more outlandish; we call them "scholarly disciplines". The latter, however, at least most of the time, are actually pursuing cumulative processes of inquiry generally yielding reliable (if approximate) knowledge, and my hunch is that this is because they are responding to things like "evidence", as well as the social forces within the group and whatever physical communities its members happen to reside in. It's early days, of course, but I would be very surprised if the community of mind-control believers also develops reliable knowledge about mind control, if only because they are not actually being mind-controlled. So there should be fascinating opportunities for philosophers and sociologists of science to see what difference it makes to an epistemic community whether what it studies is real or not. To repeat a joke, psychoceramics is to social epistemology what lesion studies are to neuropsychology...

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Psychoceramica; Networks; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts

Posted at August 30, 2007 17:20 | permanent link

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