What Drives Mass Hysteria, Human Stampedes and Fads?

From Black Friday stampedes to scapegoating Jews in the Holocaust, social delusions are a barometer of the state of a society.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / DJTaylor

The following is an excerpt from the new book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions (Prometheus Books, 2015) by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall.

Information is not power. It does not necessarily make us any smarter or better able to cope with social delusions. English philosopher Francis Bacon knew this centuries ago when he wrote in 1597 that “knowledge itself is power.”1 In this chapter, we will outline the lessons that can be gleaned from our foray into the history of popular delusions. We must emphasize from the onset that many people may recognize the appearance of a particular delusion, but that is no guarantee that they will avoid being caught up in the fear or excitement. An apt example is the typical stock market crash. The old adage of buy low and sell high is considered by most economists to be sage advice. Yet, during a bull market, shareholders are often reluctant to sell for fear of missing out on even greater profits. Conversely, when the market has taken a sudden plunge, there is usually widespread reluctance to buy, fearing that prices may spiral even further downward. When a major move in share prices occurs, many people fail to act. This state of affairs has given rise to another adage: that markets are driven up by greed and fall on fear. If the advice in this section is to be useful, it is important to heed the lessons and remember that we are all susceptible to popular delusions.

We have learned that rumors are unverified stories of perceived importance that cannot be immediately substantiated. As they emerge, they tend to become shorter (leveling), more specific (sharpening), and reflective of prevailing stereotypes (assimilation). Rumors are ever-present, but flourish when there is scant information and conflicting claims. They are incubated in situations of anxiety and ambiguity. A key determinant of whether a rumor will flourish or fade is its degree of plausibility: the more credible the rumor, the more likely it is to be believed. It is impossible to control the content or outcome of a rumor.

Most rumors arise spontaneously in a cauldron of uncertainty and fear that typify times of financial crisis, political turmoil, and war. The construction and circulation of rumors provides a degree of certainty which reduces tensions. Humans can deal with just about anything, but they cannot cope with uncertainty. The bottom line is that, in times of crisis, expect the appearance of wild claims and unverified tales, but exercise caution as to their truth or falsity until they have been confirmed. If rumors should arise, address them promptly, refute each claim point by point, and offer evidence. Never issue statements like “no comment,” as in the public eye, this is the equivalent to admitting guilt, whether you are guilty or not.

As for gossip, talking about someone who is not present—especially in negative ways—appears to be part of the human condition. We have all gossiped at some point. While it can be considered cruel and divisive, recent studies suggest that the benefits of gossiping may outweigh the negatives as it provides several key functions. Gossip binds people together as they share personal information about third parties. It fosters alliances and provides clear standards of behavior. Gossip can also enhance the prestige and social status of those taking part and allows one person to keep tabs on a large number of people without meeting them. However, we should be mindful that there is a potential dark side to gossip; it can alienate and victimize others and create group dissent. At its worst, it is a form of group bullying; at its best, it gives us clear behavioral boundaries. For better or worse, to be human is to gossip.

In reviewing fads, those who become familiar with their phases (the dormant period, the breakout phase, the peak, and the rapid decline) will be better able to track the life stage of any given outbreak. Fads are far from innocent distractions and preoccupations: while the focus may be on the trivial, familiarity with these phases can reap large monetary rewards if you know the difference between a fad and a trend. One is fleeting, the other is enduring. Trends fit with changing lifestyles; fads do not. Trends typically offer health and monetary benefits to those who adopt them; fads do not. People are unlikely to become wealthy or gain health benefits from swallowing goldfish or nurturing a pet rock, yet a trend featuring a new health food that is convenient to cook and affordably priced is likely to endure. Businesses that sell items that they have identified as fads need to ascertain the life-stage that each item is passing through and guard against being left with thousands of units that no one wants to buy.

Crazes are a like being in a bad relationship: friends may urge you to break it off and list the negative qualities of the object of your affections, but more often than not, their advice goes unheeded until it is too late. Whether it is a get-rich-quick scheme or a religious figure promising salvation through collective suicide, crazes have a far greater potential for harm. There is perhaps no better advice in dealing with crazes than the old chestnut, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Use logic: How is it possible that this person claims to have a “hotline” to God or the ability to create vast wealth when others do not? If a religious leader or a financial advisor ever complains that you are asking too many questions, it is a good indicator that it is time to get out.

Powerful psychological processes, such as the autokinetic effect, are often instrumental in triggering social delusions. Stare at an object in the night sky or a terrestrial object in a darkened environment, and it can appear to move and be interpreted as a supernatural occurrence. We are also prone to interpreting information patterns that reflect our expectations: we tend to see what we expect to see. Hence, depending on our preexisting beliefs, one is susceptible to misidentifying a wake at Loch Ness as a prehistoric creature, an aerial light in the night as a flying saucer, or rustling in the woods as a chupacabra. The mind fills in the missing information.

Similar processes are at work in small-group scares. Regardless of one’s education level, we are all prone to misidentifying people and objects in the environment. Our memories do not work like a video recorder. Not only is our perception of the world imperfect, what we do recall changes over time. Episodes involving phantom attackers underscore how vulnerable we are to self-deception, especially when facing what is perceived to be an imminent threat, under conditions of prolonged fear, mental fatigue, and sleep deprivation—the combination of which can not only blur judgement, but can also trigger fleeting mages and hallucinations that reflect the attack scenario. Preventing small-group scares is problematic as they are usually only recognized as such after the fact, once one has been able to assess the circumstances and facts. Fortunately, these are relatively rare occurrences.

In the case of moral panics, when communities feel threatened by so-called evildoers (“folk devils”) who have breached the moral standards of society, it is vital to keep the threat in perspective and obtain accurate information. Scrutinize facts and figures presented by the media, law enforcement agencies, lawmakers, and action groups, and compare them with those of independent, neutral experts. Look for the key, measurable indicators of moral panics such as widespread hostility toward the demonized agent. One sure red flag is any attempt to villainize an entire group or ethnic minority. Identify exaggerated claims and statistics, especially those involving the number of deaths or crimes, or the amount of damage. Remember, it is easy to create a drop in crime statistics if authorities have narrowed the definition of a particular act. Also ask yourself: Do reports of the threat fluctuate wildly over time? Does the threat play into existing public fears?

Incidents of mass hysteria are notoriously difficult to identify in their early stages. Contagious conversion disorder is most common in close-knit groups occupying enclosed settings such as schools and factories. The best advice is to exercise caution and assume the worst: that it is a real contamination or poisoning event. However, once you have been cleared by a doctor and tests of the air, water, food, and soil have been completed and excluded as possible causes, mass hysteria must be considered the most likely cause.

Next, you need to identify the type of conversion disorder you are dealing with: anxiety hysteria or motor hysteria. The former is common in Western countries. There is a rapid onset triggered by the sudden perception of a threatening agent such as a strange odor or a rumor of tainted food. Symptoms are transient and benign and commonly include overbreathing, headache, dizziness, nausea, and weakness. The second possibility—motor hysteria—occurs in an atmosphere of preexisting group anxiety and builds over weeks or months, resulting in disruptions to the nervous system and subsequent bouts of twitching, shaking, and trance-like states. These episodes often take weeks or months to subside.

The best way to deal with an outbreak once it has been identified is to stay calm, offer reassurance, and above all, avoid using emotionally charged words like “hysteria.” Instead use “stress reaction” or “psychogenic illness.” Emergency responders should separate victims from nonpatients and avoid speculating on the cause. Once a diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness has been made, authorities should avoid making comments like “it’s all in their heads” as the symptoms are real. If a school or business is involved, you should limit the number of media contacts. It is best to have only one or two people commenting. Sending victims home and keeping them separated from nonvictims until their symptoms have resolved has been an effective strategy over the years. However, outbreaks of either type are likely to continue unless authorities can convince the victims and their relatives that the perceived threat either never existed or has since been resolved.

Stampedes and flight panics continue to take lives every year. To combat the possibility of being caught up in an event, it would be wise to avoid large groups in confined spaces. If you are going to place yourself in an at-risk situation, ensure that there are an adequate number of functioning exits and situate yourself in close proximity of one. If a panic breaks out and you are not near an exit, remain calm and avoid being swept up in the crowd. In many panics, people did not die from fire or smoke inhalation; they were crushed to death in the frantic attempt to leave the premises. The best advice of all is to avoid placing yourself in a compromising situation.

Our last category is riots, which can break out spontaneously at any time, and hence, there is no set strategy for avoiding them. However, if hostilities break out and you find yourself in the middle of a potentially violent situation, the best advice is to maintain a low profile and leave the affected area as quickly and quietly as possible until emotions have settled down. If there have been sim¬mering tensions and you suspect that hostilities may break out, avoid the business districts, especially at night, where looting is likely.

The history of social delusions showcases the remarkably broad spectrum of human behavior and beliefs and can range from the trivial and humorous such as fads, to claims about the threat from deviants like Jews and other ethnic minorities who become scapegoats during moral panics. Social delusions can take many forms, and while impossible to predict, each has characteristic features that can enable us to recognize them. If we have learned one paramount lesson, it is that these outbreaks will continue to both plague and delight generations to come. Ultimately, social delusions are a barometer of the state of society at any given time; they are reflections of humanity itself as they mirror our prevailing hopes and fears.

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Robert E. Bartholomew is the author of 12 previous books, most recently Mass Hysteria in Schools (with Robert Rickard), and more than 60 articles in professional journals, including the British Medical Journal and the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. 

Peter Hassall is a researcher, writer, stuntman, and fight choreographer. He is the author of The NZ Files: UFOs in New Zealand and he has contributed a chapter to The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media Hoaxes and Panics by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford.