Mass hysteria, crazes and panics

The Fortean Times has an article and some fantastic excerpts from a new encyclopaedia on mass hysteria, social panics and fast moving fads called Outbreak: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behaviour.

The book tackles some of the most curious and surprising outbreaks from medieval times to the present day, covering everything from medieval dancing plagues to modern day penis theft panics to the worldwide hula-hoop craze of 1958.

It’s by sociologists Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew both of whom are well known for their work on how unusual beliefs and experiences are shaped by culture. However, mass hysterias and the like and still one of the most mysterious aspects of human psychology.

There have been many attempts to account for the kinds of outlandish collect­ive behaviour that so fascinate forteans – the book provides entries on many of these related theories and explan­ations, from Altered States of Consciousness and Anxiety to False Memory Syndrome, Hysteria and Psychosomatic Phenomena. Many once-favoured ideas don’t really stand up to much scrutiny: consider the fad among 19th-century physicians for ‘curing’ masturbators with bizarre surgical ‘intervention’ and for terrifying their hapless patients with the prospect of bodily ruin and eternal damnation. It could be argued that none of the theories that have been put forward – even the more promising ones – actually applies in all cases.

Ultimately, it’s clear there is no consensus on just why human behaviour should include such anomalies, or how and why they occur. Just possibly, they may be pathological forms of the more healthy processes that cement our personal and social lives and which are only noticed when they go wrong. In many cases, the best that can be done is to understand the local social, political and cultural dynamics, but even so the causes of many such outbreaks remain obscure. This is important, because such erratic collective behaviour casts an awful shadow over human history, and we are no closer to understanding it now than Mackay was in 1841.

In fact, Bartholomew wrote one of my favourite books of all time. Called Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975) it was the first book that made me wake up to the power of social influence on individual psychology.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I was sent a PDF of the new encyclopaedia some months ago in the hopes that I would write some blurb for the back, which I was more than happy to do as it is a wonderfully complete collection of social curiosities.

The Fortean Times article has some great excerpts covering an outbreak of feinting in a marching band in 1973 Alabama (a classic case of mass hysteria), an outbreak of cat-like meowing in India in 2004, the 1958 hula-hoop craze, a goblin scare that affect Zimbabwe in 2002, a ‘culture bound syndrome’ with the unusual name of the jumping Frenchmen of Maine from the 18th and 19th centuries, various outbreaks of fears about chemtrails, a giant earthworm hoax that panicked a Texas town in 1993, and a version of Orson Well’s War of the Worlds that caused widespread rioting in Ecuador in 1949.

And if you want more on ‘mass hysteria’, I highly recommend a 2002 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry by Bartholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Link to Fortean Times article ‘Outbreak!’
Link to more details on the book.
Link to BJP article on mass psychogenic illness.

4 Comments

  1. Posted September 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    This is very interesting.
    Have you got an opinion why economists who study financial panics don’t a) know more about this field of sociology, and b) confuse social influence with local individual irrationality?

  2. Matthew Platte
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Feint with a sword or basketball shoes; faint with glee when you stand up too quickly.

  3. HoneyP
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Here is a great example. Many townspeople were convinced that there was a Leprechaun in a tree.

  4. atavist
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    A mass hysteria is interesting to think about as a case of embodied and affective influences on cultural evolution. Besides the usual suspects (eg, prestige-biased social learning), automatic mimicry and implicit emotional contagion might help explain panics/crazes, which we should arguably expect to be sensitive to initial conditions, by predicting their early dynamics.


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